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It’s been a rough month for games journalism.
After almost 12 years, AOL-owned games blog Joystiq shut up shop, meaning 12 people just lost their jobs. It’s a sobering story, especially for anyone who works in digital publishing. It’s a story that reminds us of the tenuous nature of the industry in which we work, and the inherent frailty of our positions within it.
Joystiq was a brilliant but hugely divisive publication – it had fans and haters in equal measures. This was, for the most part, because it was loud, confident, and wasn’t afraid to kick up a stink when need be. It was one of the few games publications I read on a regular basis, and the loss of it has left a crater-sized hole in the world of gaming journalism.
But the real story behind its closure isn’t the 18% drop in traffic in the year that lead up to its closure, although that undoubtedly was a contributing factor to its demise. Nor is it the allegation that the strong editorial stance against Gamergate resulted in it alienating its core readership, as was claimed by Milo Yiannopolous writing in Breitbart London.
No. This is about how a simple, free browser plugin killed Joystiq, and is ruining the Internet.
Meet AdBlock Plus
First, a little bit of backstory.
AdBlock Plus is a browser plugin, available for Chrome, Safari, Opera, Internet Explorer and Android. When installed, it removes banner adverts from web pages before they even appear in the user’s screen. As you can imagine, it’s immensely popular, with almost 300 million installs worldwide.
It’s not the only plugin that blocks adverts, but it’s definitely the largest.
But in addition to fundamentally changing the user’s browsing experience, AdBlock Plus has had a massive impact on how online content is monetized, and the livelihoods of digital creatives. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The Economics Of The Internet
The problem with free content isn’t that it isn’t free. Not really. Every post you read on MakeUseOf, and many other websites, costs money to produce. With respect to MakeUseOf, each post written will take hours to write, edit, and package – but mere minutes to read. It will see a writer, editor, and graphics designer getting paid for their services, but will cost the reader nothing upfront.
The overwhelming majority of the editorial and writing staff on staff here live in first-world countries (you can find out more about where we live and work here), with the subsequent first-world costs of living. For us to continue writing content on a full (or even part) time basis, we need to get paid according to the cost of living where we live, or we’ll just do something else. It’s basic economics: labor has to be compensated.
Right now, advertising is the only revenue model which can be reliably expected to work, and allows digital journalists to reasonably expect to earn a living. Most adverts aren’t directly serviced by the website itself, but through a third-party network. There are far too many of these to mention in a single, comprehensive list, but two of the biggest are Google AdSense and Tribal Fusion.
Sites are paid based upon how many people see the adverts (called impressions, and are measured in terms of thousands of visitors), or less commonly on how many people ‘click’ the adverts (known as pay per click, or cost per click). This means that the incomes of websites are directly contingent upon how many people see these adverts.
So, it’s pretty simple. People go on websites. They view the content, but also the adverts accompanying the content. Content producers get paid. It works.
But unusually, it’s also a revenue model in which people can ‘opt out’ of paying by employing technological means. This is becoming increasingly common, with almost 10% of all web traffic coming from computers with this awful plugin enabled. Given that Adblock users tend to be quite technologically adept, this has disproportionately affected tech and gaming websites.
Almost 47% of Joystiq’s user base had Adblock installed. Fellow games website Destructoid had similar numbers, with almost half of their readership using AdBlock. For ArsTechnica, it’s close to 40%.
This has meant, (as Papa Niero, founder of Destructoid pointed out) that sites are having to work twice as hard to earn the same income. But the problems with AdBlock aren’t just economic. Using it is also deeply unethical.
Think about it. Sites offer content for free with the expectation that their readers will ‘do the right thing’ and view the ads that accompany the content. It’s just the same as going to get a haircut. The barber will happily give you a short back and sides, because he knows that once he’s put the clippers away, you’ll pay him for his services. A taxi driver is happy enough to drive you home because he knows that when he reaches your destination, you’ll pay him. And for the most part, it’s considered highly unacceptable (and illegal) to skip out on paying for your haircut, or your cab.
So, why is it somehow acceptable to skip out on paying for the content you consume, especially when there’s the same expectation of payment? I honestly don’t know. Believe me, I’ve thought about it. I’ve racked my brains, and I’ve spent hours discussing the very subject with people who completely disagree with my point of view. I still haven’t been able to think of a way in which using AdBlock is any different to stiffing a cab driver.
The ethical dilemmas of using AdBlock aside, it’s important to remember that using it is ultimately self-defeating. Paying journalists less money doesn’t result in them producing better content, in greater quantities. Rather, it puts us all on a path to a bleak, depressing world where content is thinner, less interesting, and less dangerous.
A Race To The Bottom
It’s hard to see what impact AdBlock has had on the quality of content being produced. For reasons that are entirely understandable, scant few publications are in the habit of releasing stats for each article. In fact, of all the blogs and news websites I read, Business Insider is the only one that publicly discloses how many hits each piece gets.
But there is some compelling evidence that AdBlock is having an adverse impact on what content is profitable, and not.
Game Journo Pros is a highly secretive messageboard with an exclusive membership that consists mostly of high-ranking persons in the gaming media. The contents of this were leaked by members of the GamerGate movement around 2014.
In one thread, the conversation turned to the mass layoffs at IGN and the subsequent shuttering of GameSpy, 1UP and UGO, that occurred in June of 2014. More than one person had commented what a loss 1UP would be, especially given the notable quality of their features. In gaming terms, it’s almost like what would have happened should the New York Times close its doors. William O’Neal, then editor at TechRadar who now heads Softonic, matter-of-factly responded that ‘great features don’t make money’.
He has a point. Gaming websites that make a profit from long-form journalism are, in a word, exceptional. Believe me. Many have tried, and the vast majority have failed, with Polygon being a great example of the latter. They laid off a significant chunk of their long-form staff in 2014.
The problem is not that there’s a shortage of demand for great journalism. The problem is that there’s a shortage of people willing to pay for great journalism, even in an industry that is as booming as gaming. When half of a site’s readership is unwilling to support that site even by looking at ads, the end result is that proprietors will be more conservative with what they publish – and less willing to take risks.
It’s not just long-form journalism that’s been hit. Across the web, there’s been a perceptible drop in standards as journalists are paid less, and are stretched further as they have to do the work of their recently laid-off colleagues.
Overwhelmingly, this has manifested itself as thin content, reworked press releases, and dishonest linkbait titles: the trifecta of everything wrong with the Internet in 2015.
But I’m not just referring to smaller, less established websites. A cursory browse through Google shows that people are getting frustrated with the likes of The Independent (an established Broadsheet paper) and even the BBC, which displays adverts to visitors from outside of the United Kingdom for using deceptive, Upworthy-style linkbait titles.
— Mike Butcher (@mikebutcher) October 7, 2014
When writers continue to get squeezed, this trend will only get worse. As the old adage goes, if you pay peanuts, you only get monkeys. But surely some of the blame deserves to lie at the feet of publishers and content producers, right?
We’re Not Angels
Cards on the table: I’m biased as hell. I’ve got a dog in this fight. I find AdBlock completely and utterly distasteful. It senselessly hurts content producers, and is a contributing factor to how hard it to monetize content online, and the subsequent homogenization and attenuation of online journalism.
It’s incredibly easy to blame freeloading users for the woes of the publishing industry. Easy, but fundamentally lazy. This worldview ignores the fact that there are some glaring issues with how online advertising works. My friend and colleague Mihir Patkar wrote an incredible piece on this earlier this week, and I really recommend you check it out. But if you want to read my take on the situation, read on.
But first, let me point out that the irony of a writer complaining about advertising networks isn’t lost on me. It’s a bit like being a truck driver and having an issue with the internal combustion engine. But let’s face it: everyone agrees there’s a huge amount of room for improvement in the online advertising world, and nobody is satisfied with the status quo.
There have been a huge number of really distasteful things done by the major advertising networks that have cost it the trust of users, and of publishers. Last year, I published a piece on Kyle and Stan, which was some particularly pernicious malware that was distributed through erstwhile legitimate advertising networks.
Advertising networks have also been accused of colluding with the NSA in their Prism program, which saw billions of Internet users come under the watchful eye of the American security services. Not to mention their entire current incarnation is based around the surveillance of people’s Internet activity in order to better customize their adverts.
And then, there’s the undeniable fact that many adverts have a real impact on how a website is experienced, and seldom for the better. From slow page load times, to pop-overs, to video adverts; each of these things serve only to annoy and alienate users.
There are a great many reasons to be angry with advertising networks. Trust me, I depend on adverts to put food on the table, and I quite often find myself resenting the fact I’m dependent upon them.
Everyone agrees that online advertising industry is in dire need of reform. But not everyone agrees where that reform should come from.
In many respects, some of that reform is being done by websites who are unhappy at how their users’ experience of their content is so deeply warped by the presence of bad advertising. Sites can vote with their feet, and can choose the kinds of advertising that they display.
You’ll be hard pressed, for example, to find an autoplaying video advert on MakeUseOf. We take a proactive approach to the adverts we display here, and in the two years I’ve worked for this site, I haven’t seen a single advert I thought was deceptive, or sexually inappropriate. If, on the off chance, we did find an unacceptable advert, we immediately will take steps to remove it.
But ultimately, the biggest change in the advertising industry will come from consumers.
It’s only a matter of time before the camel’s back breaks, and advertising networks will be forced to reform as a result of the overwhelming pressure of people installing AdBlock.
But no matter what you feel about advertising networks, it’s undeniable that content producers are disproportionately affected by the decision not to view adverts. We’re not bad people. We work hard, and we want to produce stuff that people enjoy reading and watching. But we also have to put food on the table.
Can there be a happy compromise? I think so. I think it’s possible for consumers to see good, unobtrusive adverts, without stiffing content producers. But we need to work together. Websites need to act whenever an unacceptable advert runs on their website, and refuse to work with networks that engage in underhand activity. But simultaneously, consumers need to put pressure on companies and advertising networks to respect their privacy, and their user experience.
For the sake of fairness, AdBlock Plus does allow users to permit ‘acceptable’ and ‘unobtrusive’ advertising. This can be activated and deactivated as that user sees fit. However, the cynic in me worries that AdBlock Plus have set themselves up as gatekeepers to websites earning an income. That’s an immense position of power, and one which is troublingly bereft of independent oversight.
Furthermore, my concerns about AdBlock Plus are compounded when you consider that they have an economic incentive to permit some adverts, and block others. In their own FAQ, they answer the question of how they make money with ‘We are being paid by some larger properties that serve non-intrusive advertisements that want to participate in the Acceptable Ads initiative’.
My friend, ScraperWiki CEO Francis Irving, once described the three-way conflict of interests between advertisers, users and content creators as a ‘war’. He might not be wrong. At this point, it’s worth exploring whether there are any viable alternatives to advertising.
Are There Any Alternatives?
The great thing about advertising is that it’s very much a ‘One Size Fits All’ solution like no other.
Advertising works. No matter where you are in terms of readership or your stage of development, advertising can allow you to start earning money from your content. It’s also a model that has been successfully repeated on millions of different websites. Another compelling advantage of advertising is that it’s inherently predictable. Get your total traffic, subtract those using adblock, divide by 1000 and multiply by your CPM, and you’ll have an idea of how much you’ll earn that month.
As a result, it remains the most effective and popular revenue model for the Internet. But are there any alternatives?
Well, yes. The problem is, they’re either not scalable, or not repeatable, or simply just not viable for everybody. I’ve written about these in the past with my piece on alternative ways to monetize creative content without advertising, as well as in my piece on publications that have eschewed the advertising revenue model. Overwhelmingly, they boil down to crowdfunding (I’m including Patreon here) and micro-donations.
The problem with crowdfunding is that, despite its laudable number of successes – with the $500,000 raised by Penny Arcade on KickStarter being a notable example – it’s simply not a repeatable, scalable or predictable solution.
If you’re not an established journalist or writer with a baying legion of fans, the odds of you getting enough money to write full-time are pretty slim. Even for larger publications or authors, it’s not guaranteed whether you’ll manage to convince enough readers to donate to keep you afloat.
Paywalls, similarly, suffer from the same problem. If you’re the London Times, or the New York Times, great. You likely have a sufficiently large readership and a strong enough brand to start charging for your content. But if you’re a small, or otherwise unknown creative, then you’re going to struggle to get people to open their wallets.
Micro-donations are even less of a viable option. These services allow viewers to ‘tip’ authors of work they enjoy, usually in amounts of just a few cents. Flattr is one of the most notable examples of these sites, with thousands of registered users. However, I’m yet to find anyone who has managed to make a living from them.
But I’m not entirely cynical. There’s a service, in Slovakia of all places, that has applied the Spotify model of consumption to web publishing. It’s called Piano Media, and it allows customers to access premium Slovak language web content from 60 properties for the fee of €3.90 per month. For sites that have signed up to Piano, this effectively nullifies the impact of adblock.
But the advantage of Piano isn’t just limited to beating AdBlock at its own game. It has made it possible for people to make a living from writing in a language that has a meagre 7 million speakers. To put that into context, that’s roughly the same number of people who visit MakeUseOf in a week.
Would I like to see Piano take the leap from the Carpathians to the rest of the world? Absolutely. Would I be willing to pay $20 per month to support content creators and not see adverts, anywhere? Again, absolutely. But nobody has built that yet. So, in the interim, we’re stuck with advertising as the only scalable, repeatable and predictable model for web publishing. The only one that works.
We’re At A Fork In The Road
The Internet is at a crucial juncture in its development, and it’s up to us to decide what we want it to look like in a few years.
On one hand, we’ve got a world where content creators aren’t compensated for their work. Where it’s almost impossible to make a living from writing deep, original and dangerous journalism. Where the only people making money are those resorting to shameless link-bait tactics (a la ViralNova), and rewriting stuff they saw on Reddit (a la Mail Online). Where there’s no profit incentive to create interesting, long-form journalism, or to create awesome pieces of art.
On the other hand, we’ve got a world where people don’t cheat the people who write the Internet. Where people can make a living from challenging the status quo, and from writing well-informed, well-researched journalism. Where film makers, musicians, and writers are all adequately compensated.
I know what world I want, and I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. How about you?
Photo Credits: Dismissed businessman Via Shutterstock, Angry Driver With Dollar Bills (Konstantin Sutyagin – Shutterstock), Wage Slip on notepad with black pen in background (Phil.Tinkler – Shutterstock), Annoyed designer gesturing in front of her laptop in her office (wavebreakmedia)