Nothing feels good anymore: On ad blocking

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When Marco Arment launched Peace, his iOS 9 Safari content blocker, I immediately downloaded it. The question was not whether I was going to download a content blocker, but which one I was going to purchase (more on this below); since Arment is the force behind Overcast, my favorite podcast player, Peace was the (fairly obvious) choice for me. I knew it would work and I trust Arment enough as a developer that I wasn't worried about any potentially weird data collecting things. 

Today he pulled Peace from the app store (after it had skyrocketed to the No. 1 spot on the App Store's "Paid Apps" chart) because it "just doesn't feel good."

As I write this, Peace has been the number one paid app in the U.S. App Store for about 36 hours. It’s a massive achievement that should be the highlight of my professional career. If Overcast even broke the top 100, I’d be over the moon.
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.

This is a very fair point, and it can (and should) prompt you to have a conversation with yourself about whether you feel morally okay about blocking ads. This won't be too long of a blog, but I'd like to explain my thought process behind the situation as someone who has worked for editorial publications for almost six years:

  1. Ads are completely, 100% necessary things. The two websites I worked for longest, AbsolutePunk.net and Fuse, both relied heavily on ad revenue to survive. I never got paid by AP.net, but it's fair to say that Fuse.tv ad revenue provided me with living wages while I worked there for over two years. 
  2. Publications are rapidly getting out of control with the fashion in which they present ads. Both of the websites I named above have some truly fucking annoying ads on them, though they aren't nearly the worst offenders around. AP.net ads aren't controlled by Jason Tate -- they're managed by AP.net's parent company, SPIN Media, which is a terrible company -- so unfortunately we had no control over that. I first started blocking ads on AbsolutePunk in 2011. Fuse made some terrible choices with ad placement from time to time, and I blocked ads on Fuse even while I worked there, opening a completely different browser if I ever had to look at the site with ads on it to make sure something was working. I couldn't handle being annoyed by the ads as often as I was required to load the site for work.
  3. Mobile ads, specifically, are in a horrendous state right now. They're harder to click out of, they take up a larger percentage of real estate on your screen, and many websites hit you with multiple ads upon your point of entry so they get their money from you as soon as they can. This is a reaction to how quickly mobile browsing has caught up (and surpassed, for some publications) the traffic they receive from desktop users. 

All that being said, ad blockers have quickly become a necessity on both desktop and mobile browsers. It's not really a debate to me: Content publishers have consciously gone over the top in the way they present ads and have therefore put me in a position where I'm too often having to wade through a sea of ads before I can get to the content I'd like to consume. If the ads were more reasonable, I wouldn't block them. Arment explained this well when he first introduced Peace:

The “implied contract” theory that we’ve agreed to view ads in exchange for free content is void because we can’t review the terms first — as soon as we follow a link, our browsers load, execute, transfer, and track everything embedded by the publisher. Our data, battery life, time, and privacy are taken by a blank check with no recourse. It’s like ordering from a restaurant menu with no prices, then being forced to pay whatever the restaurant demands at the end of the meal.

A personal case in point for me: My favorite sports website is SBNation.com, and they do some of the most creative advertising and integrated marketing around. Their "presented by" content is done very tastefully, but they also often have a large ad in a banner at the top of their pages that takes up more than half of my browser page. Sometimes I can't tell where the content starts because my entire browser view is obscured by an ad. 

I would love to contribute to SBNation's ad revenue (especially since I've taken a liking to many of their writing personalities), but I'm not willing to wait for that shit to load every time I visit their pages (which is often), then dig past it to get to the story I want to read. So while I'm sorry to do it, I block ads there, and it doesn't feel good, but I legitimize it because someone chose to put that shitty ad there. Publishers have to know that there are consequences to those types of actions, and among the potential consequences are the loss of readers due to poor user experience or a failure to generate any ad revenue as a reader blocks all ads. By blocking ads on a website, you're sending a message to publishers; if you think that's a bit over-dramatized, it's not. When enough people block ads on a certain site, the site feels it and they should realize it's time for some sort of change.

My recommendation in this situation is to download some sort of ad / content blocker (Ghostery is good for desktop, or just use the basic AdBlocker software that everyone uses; Marco recommends Crystal and Purify for iOS now that Peace is down), but do it smartly. If there is a website that you love and you frequently visit, and their ads aren't annoying the hell out of you, whitelist that site so their ads show. You should feel happy to see ads when they're supporting people or companies who create content you love. Don't be a hypocrite and deny writers or editors or artists or whoever their living wages if you're still going to go and consume what they put out. That can and should make you feel like an awful citizen of the Internet. Be fair. 

I whitelist websites that I know run relatively minimal ads, and whose publishers I feel good about supporting. You should too. It marks a fair compromise: Avoid the worst of the web while still helping to financially support the people who you feel you should support, and who are willing to keep ads reasonable. An easy way to whitelist is just clicking the "whitelist" button every time you organically navigate to a site who you know you'd like to continue supporting -- it doesn't have to be a burden to try remembering all of these sites at one time to add them to your whitelist.

The spread of content blockers to iOS will surely ignite some type of sparring match between publishers, ad providers and the blockers themselves. Soon enough, I'm sure more websites will install some code that requests you to whitelist their site or it just won't load content for you. This will surely start to make the Internet an even worse type of hellhole, but for now, I'll enjoy my faster browsing speed courtesy of Ghostery and Peace. When websites tone down their ads to a reasonable point (this is all cyclical: pop-up ads used to be common, and now you never see them anymore; we'll get past this ugly phase of ads soon too), I'll be happy to completely un-install my content blockers.