Ad Blocking and the Future of the Web

YOUR site may soon be collateral damage in a war between Silicon Valley superpowers. By including ad blocking in iOS9, Apple isn’t trying to take down your site or mine—just like the drone program doesn’t deliberately target civilians and children. Apple is trying to hurt arch-rival Google while providing a more elegant (i.e. more Apple-like) web experience than user-hostile ad networks have previously allowed. This is a great example of acting in your own self-interest, yet smelling like a rose. Will independent sites that depend on advertising be hurt along with Google?

We have always been at war with Eastasia

We should be used to this war between digital super companies by now. iPhone and iPad users, consider your Amazon experience on the platform. Notice how you can’t buy books in your Kindle app in iOS? Apple supports Amazon to the extent of letting Amazon distribute Kindle software on the iOS platform. But if you want to buy a Kindle book for your phone, you have to go to a desktop browser (or open Safari on your phone and navigate to Kind of encourages you to get your digital books in iBooks instead.

Same with Amazon’s video app on iOS. You can stream all the movies you want on your phone or iPad, but you can’t buy them in the Amazon Video app. You must use a desktop browser or navigate to in the version of Safari that comes with iOS. Kind of encourages you to buy videos from iTunes instead.

You also can’t buy Kindle books or streaming Amazon videos in the Amazon shopping app for iOS, although you can use that app to shop for anything else.

See, Amazon doesn’t want to give Apple a cut of its media sales, so Apple won’t let Amazon sell products in its apps. In Apple’s reasoning, all other vendors pay Apple a cut; Amazon shouldn’t get a pass. And Amazon is serious about not sharing revenue, because Amazon is a ruthless competitor that has taken over nearly all online retail sales in the U.S. by innovating service and delivery, and giving consumers the lowest possible price—a price that leaves them no margin to share with Apple. It’s also a price that strangles the companies that provide the goods Amazon sells. Oh, well.

Because Amazon is serious about not sharing sales revenue with Apple, and Apple is serious about blocking sales by any vendor that refuses to share revenue, Apple denies Amazon the right to sell products via its iOS apps. Who suffers? You, the consumer, as you put down your phone and toddle over to a desktop—or just shrug and do without. (Not that it’s the worst suffering in this world. But it is anti-consumer, and makes both Amazon and Apple look bad.)

And, of course, you can’t stream Amazon video on your Apple TV, and likewise can’t watch video content you’ve purchased through Apple iTunes on Amazon Fire TV without jumping through (possibly illegal) hoops. Not since Microsoft dominated the desktop software world in the 1990s have tech and media companies viewed success as a last-man-standing affair, with the consumer as collateral damage.

Still, we’re used to all this and don’t think about it.

Ad blocking is a different beast.

Certainly, at first, ad blocking seems like a different beast. After all, consumers may want to buy books in their Kindle app, but no consumer is clamoring for more ads. And media and advertising have only themselves to blame for the horrendous experience online advertising has become. We hate advertising so much, we’ve trained ourselves not to look at the top or right sidebar on most sites. In fact, it’s become a designer’s trick that if the client forces you to put the CEO’s pet link on the home page, you hide it in plain sight at the top of the sidebar, where no one but the CEO will see it. Popups and screen takeovers and every other kind of anti-user nightmare have made advertising a hated and largely ignored thing on the web.

There are tasteful ad networks, to be sure. The Deck, which Jim Coudal created with Jason Fried and me, serves one single, small, tasteful, well targeted ad per page. When we launched The Deck, I hoped other networks would take inspiration from it, and figure out how to increase engagement while minimizing clutter. I even tried to sell my studio’s media clients on the notion of fewer, better priced, better targeted ads. But of course the ad networks have done the opposite—constantly interrupting content to force misleading, low-interest ads on you.

Hip web consumers have long used third-party ad blockers to unfug the web experience, and great applications like Readability explored alternate content revenue models while boosting type size and removing ad clutter from web content. I served on the Readability advisory board. And I used to go around the world warning designers that if we didn’t figure out a way to create readable, clutter-free layouts for our clients’ sites, apps like Readability would do it for us—putting us out of work, and removing advertising as a revenue stream for media companies. As it happens, in the intervening years, many smart sites have found a way to put content first and emphasize not just legibility but readability in their layouts. The best of those sites—I’m thinking of The New York Times here—have found a way to integrate advertising tastefully in those large-type, content-focused, readability-oriented modern layouts. (, of course, does an amazing job with big type and readability, but it doesn’t need to integrate advertising—at least not yet—as it floats on a sea of VC bucks.)

But advertisers don’t want to be ignored, and they are drunk on our data, which is what Google and other large networks are really selling. The ads are almost a by-product; what companies really want to know is what antiperspirant a woman of 25-34 is most likely to purchase after watching House of Cards. Which gets us into issues of privacy and spying and government intrusion and don’t ask.

And in this environment of sites so cluttered with misleading ads they are almost unnavigable, Apple looks heroic, riding to the consumer’s rescue by providing all the content from newspapers without the ads, and by blocking ugly advertising on websites. But if they succeed, will media companies and independent sites survive?

Consumer good vs. consumer good

What Apple’s doing wouldn’t matter as much if consumers were still sitting down at a desktop to get their news and cat gifs. But they’re not. Everyone does everything on mobile. Including browse the web.

Thus in The Verge today, Nilay Patel argues there’s a real risk that, in attacking Google’s revenue stream, Apple may hurt the web itself:

The collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media. … Taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl. —Welcome to hell: Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook and the slow death of the web

John Gruber thinks otherwise, at least for small indie sites like his:

Perhaps I am being smug. But I see the fact that Daring Fireball’s revenue streams should remain unaffected by Safari content-blocking as affirmation that my choices over the last decade have been correct: that I should put my readers’ interests first, and only publish the sort of ads and sponsorships that I myself would want to be served, even if that means leaving (significant) amounts of money on the table along the way. But I take no joy in the fact that a terrific publication like The Awl might be facing hard times. They’re smart; they will adapt.—Because of Apple

In Publishing Versus Performance, I looked at the conflict between advertising and content through the filter of performance. For those who didn’t read it (or don’t remember), I pointed out that most consumer interaction with the web happens on mobile, which means it happens on mobile networks, which, at times at least, may be severely bandwidth-constrained; so performance counts as it hasn’t in years. And while good designers and developers are working like never before to create performant websites, the junk ad networks spew interferes with their good work and slows websites to a crawl. This threatens the future of the web, as consumers will blame the web for poor performance, and stick to apps. But removing those ad networks isn’t an option, I pointed out, since, abhorrent or not, advertising dollars are the engine that drives digital media: no bucks, no content.

Well, now, Apple has decided for us. Removing those ad networks may not be an option, but it’s happening anyway. How will it affect your site?

Also published in

Publishing v. Performance—or, The Soul of the Web

MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.

The two principles are:

  1. Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
  2. Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.

The conflict between these two principles is best summarized, as is often the case, by the wonderfully succinct Jeremy Keith (author, HTML5 For Web Designers). In his 27 July post, “On The Verge,” Jeremy takes us through prior articles beginning with Nilay Patel’s Verge piece, “The Mobile Web Sucks,” in which Nilay blames browsers and a nonexistent realm he calls “the mobile web” for the slow performance of websites built with bloated frameworks and laden with fat, invasive ad platforms—like The Verge itself.

The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.

A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:

I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …

Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …

For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.

Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.

And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:

It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.

I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)

To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.

I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)

Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”

Also published in Medium.

This Week In The Death of Publishing & The Web


Apple, like Facebook, has entered into a standoff with the publishing industry and the open, if for-profit, web. And it’s being done under the aegis of design: choose a better reading experience on our curated platform, they offer, or let us clean up that pesky advertising on the open web.

Source: Apple Saves Publishing… For Itself

N.B. This is not the first time this conversation has arisen, nor will it be the last. Off the top of my head, see also:

⇛ Is the web under threat? Will Facebook or Apple kill or save journalism? Share your thoughts or your favorite links on the subject. Bonus points for older articles.

Deck Ad Deal: Champagne Eyeballs on a Beer Budget

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We Didn’t Stop The Fire.

OUR LIBRARY IS BURNING. Copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap. Digital permanence is a tragically laughable ideal to anyone who remembers the VHS format wars or tries to view Joshua Davis’s 1990s masterpieces on a modern computer. Digital archiving is only as permanent as the next budget cycle—as when libraries switched from microfilm to digital subscriptions and then were forced to cancel the subscriptions during the pre-recession recession. And of course, my digital work vanishes the moment I die or lose the ability to keep hosting it. If you really want to protect your family photos, take them off Flickr and your hard drive, get them on paper, and store them in an airtight box.

Though bits are forever, our medium is mortal, as all but the most naive among us know. And we accept that some of what we hold digitally dear will perish before our eyes. But it irks most especially when people or companies with more money than judgement purchase a thriving online community only to trash it when they can’t figure out how to squeeze a buck out of it. Corporate black thumb is not new to our medium: MGM watered down the Marx Bros; the Saatchis sucked the creative life and half the billings out of the ad agencies they acquired during the 1980s and beyond. But outside the digital world, some corporate purchases and marriages have worked out (think: Disney/Pixar). And with the possible exception of Flickr (better now than the day Yahoo bought it), I can’t think of any online community or publication that has improved as a result of being purchased. Whereas we can all instantly call to mind dozens of wonderful web properties that died or crawled up their own asses as a direct result of new corporate ownership.

My colleague Mandy Brown has written a moving call to arms which, knowingly or unknowingly, invokes the LOCKSS method (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”) of preserving digital content by making copies of it; she encourages us all to become archivists. Even a disorganized ground-level effort such as Mandy proposes will be beneficial—indeed, the less organized, the better. And this is certainly part of the answer. (It’s also what drives my friend Tantek’s own your data efforts; my beef with T is mainly aesthetic.) So, yes, we the people can do our part to help undo the harm uncaring companies cause to our e-ecosystem.

But there is another piece of this which no one is discussing and which I now address specifically to my colleagues who create great digital content and communities:

Stop selling your stuff to corporate jerks. It never works. They always wreck what you’ve spent years making.

Don’t go for the quick payoff. You can make money maintaining your content and serving your community. It won’t be a fat fistful of cash, but that’s okay. You can keep living, keep growing your community, and, over the years, you will earn enough to be safe and comfortable. Besides, most people who get a big payoff blow the money within two years (because it’s not real to them, and because there are always professionals ready to help the rich squander their money). By contrast, if you retain ownership of your community and keep plugging away, you’ll have financial stability and manageable success, and you’ll be able to turn the content over to your juniors when the time comes to retire.

Our library is burning. We didn’t start the fire but we sure don’t have to help fan the flames. You can’t sell out if you don’t sell. Owning your content starts with you.

The Great Salami Caper

In the late 1980s, while making efforts to move to New York City, I came up with the winning ad campaign for Hebrew National Kosher Salami. Only I didn’t win.

Hebrew National held a contest to see if people outside Madison Avenue could come up with a great ad idea for their 83% fat free salami. The grand prize was $83,000.

Even in New York, $83,000 would have more than covered a moving van, broker’s fee, and first and last month’s rent.

But creating the winning ad carried a benefit even bigger than the cash for someone like me who was trying to break into New York advertising. I’d worked for a couple of years at Washington, DC-area ad agencies, one of them pretty good, but that and my portfolio bought me nothing in the competitive New York advertising job market of the late 1980s. There were kids coming out of school with better portfolios than mine.

Winning that contest, I believed at the time, would make a New York ad agency take me seriously.

My then-girlfriend Eva S and I submitted an ad built around the headline, “You should be so fat.”

Well, we never heard back after entering the contest, and months passed the way they do.

I continued to drive back and forth from DC to NYC looking for jobs and an apartment.

A couple of times I flew to New York for an interview in the middle of my work day. I told my DC-area-agency creative director I was seeing a doctor. I still feel bad about that lie.

One day I open a magazine, and there’s a picture of an athletic woman wearing a leotard, working out.

The headline reads, “You should be so lean.”

Lean. You should be so lean.

It was our concept made safe. “You should be so lean” was a faster read and a much less interesting idea.

Hebrew National had said in the contest rules that, in the event of duplicate ideas, they would pick the one that was best executed. I am certain today that several people submitted similar ideas and Hebrew National and its agency chose the best-looking comp, which was not mine. Quite probably the winner even wrote “You should be so lean.” All perfectly ethical.

But at the time I was sure that we had gotten ripped off.

So I confided in the president of the DC-area agency where I worked—like he needed another reason to fire me—and asked him if I should sue Hebrew National.

I sought this advice while buying a drink for the president of the agency when I should have been at my desk, working. I figured if the president of the agency was spending the afternoon in a bar, he wouldn’t mind his peon employee doing likewise.

I was thirsty and not very bright. A while later, for many reasons, the agency let me go, surprising absolutely no one but me.

But meantime I’m in the bar buying my boss a drink on his time.

He tells me something I’ll never forget: a big company has lawyers on retainer, and you don’t.


Presumably in order to avoid having to pay the child model and secure a release, Google deliberately blurred the Gap Kid model’s face on the giant outdoor Gap Kids poster before uploading this photo (and hundreds of seamlessly interwoven related photos) to Google Maps Street View.

It’s hard to say if the human beings on the street have had their features blurred as well.

Does Google go to this kind of trouble with every poster on every block of every city in the world? They must.

I bet their arms get tired.

Related: Recently, some friends and I have noticed news photos, and TV news video, where people’s faces are perfectly clear, but corporate logos have been deliberately blurred or pixelated. This is the world we live in.

Google Maps Street View blurs model’s face in poster