Travis Smith: my resume, bio and photos back to the main blog page

There’s a lot of hand-wringing this week about ad blocking on the Web, tied to iOS 9’s new functionality that brings the ability to block ads to the iPhone and iPad (finally!).

First of all, it’s weird to me that we’re suddenly concerned about ad blocking now, instead of any time in the past 10 years.  But I guess that’s how the frog gets boiled.

Secondly, I think this debate assumes a basic, tacit fact that is false: that ads are the “price” of something free (or subsidized). John Gruber of Daring Fireball is probably the smuggest hypocrite on this point currently, essentially saying that ad blocking is a reckoning that almost all publishers need to face... except him, because his ads are somehow more pure and right.

Well, guess what.  No ad is 100% pure and reasonable. Ads are not a contract.  Ads are not necessity.  Ads are a gamble and a wish and an opportunity for someone (“an advertiser”) to MAYBE be seen and have an influence on us, who I like to call “people.” But no person has to look at any ad they don’t want, no matter what certain TV executives and Gruber think.

We, the People, DO NOT have to view or pay attention to ads. Ever. We can block them, skip them, remove them if we want. Period.

It makes no difference if it’s ads in a TV show that a person wants to skip, or junk mail in their mailbox that get tossed into the trash instantly, or flyers in a newspaper, or ads on the radio, or billboards, or anything else.

Advertisers can make their ads less and less obtrusive, but there’s no level at which the advertiser can objectively say, hey, I’m polite and nice enough, now people HAVE to pay attention to me. That’s the same argument that says hey, I’m meek and friendly and sweet and I’ve hung around enough, now she has to date me. Nope, not if she doesn’t want to.

Advertisers pay for the potential opportunity to be noticed, and they pay folks who own “real estate”—places where we might be looking. If you own some “real estate,” like some good content or a bunch of bus benches, you can sell that real estate for what you convince an advertiser it’ll be worth to them.

And if that ad real estate goes down in value, because today we can more easily avoid it than yesterday, don’t try to tell us, “You still owe me, you have to look at my real estate.” You have to adjust. Our time is ours, and our attention is ours, and our devices are ours, and we can do whatever we want with what you offer us.*

(* I’m not talking about violating copyright or profiting off of someone else’s work. That would make us into real estate holders.)

That ad blocker is wrong because it blocks the ads on my site, says Gruber.

Imagine how silly it would be if he said, people can’t read my newspaper in a cafe unless all the flyers stay in it.

Or people can’t read my magazine unless they promise to look at all the ads in the back.

Or that guy can’t watch my movie because he got here late and didn’t watch the ads and previews before it.

That lady is cheating because she read a book on the bus instead of staring at my polite, silent, tasteful bus ads for 30 minutes.

That kid is a thief because he changed the radio station once his favorite song was over and he didn’t listen to my ad for cough syrup.

Ads are not the hidden price of free content, they are a side bet, a gamble by an advertiser on the interaction between a “real estate” owner and a person. They do not bind that person in any sort of behavioral contract. If you want to insist that, for your business model, the explicit “price” of something “free” is looking at an ad, then you have a different model, more like airport wifi.

Oh, and here’s a good rule: if your business model resembles that of airport wifi, you might want to sit down and take a long, hard look at your life.

When technology makes it likely that people will to look at your ad-spotted real estate—go ahead and decide if you want to profit that way for a while.  And when technology makes it possible for us people to skip ads, block ads, replace ads, silence ads… that’s not only something that’s reasonable, that’s something that’s positive and fair. That’s technology benefiting people instead of real estate owners. That’s part of the way it works.

Today, and every day, advertisers need to come up with better ways to be seen and better ways to have an influence on the people they want to reach.  And real estate owners need to come up with ways to make their real estate more valuable to people and to advertisers—it’s best if those things are done in tandem, instead of to the detriment of one side or the other.

Make your real estate too hostile to advertisers, and you better have another revenue stream to switch to. Make your real estate too hostile to people, and you better have a captive audience, or a new audience around the corner.

The ad business is Darwinian, and it’s inevitably going to have successes and failures and changes over time as the environment changes. You don’t see a lot of town criers these days.

If your business model broke today, it’s not the ad blockers that people are buying and using in record numbers that are wrong. It’s your inability to change as your audience’s behavior and expectations do, and it’s your mistake for relying on advertising revenue instead of on a direct financial relationship between you and us.

Now, if only there was some company we could look to as a positive example of valuing people over advertisers… one that didn’t turn to ad revenue for growth, but instead always tries to develop a direct relationship with its customers for revenue… it’s on the tip of my tongue...


“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?




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