Just like some weeks are mostly boring, there are others when catching a break seems all but impossible. This was undoubtedly the latter. Let’s get to it.
Issue #15: To block or not to block, that is the question
What a week. From Ahmed’s unfortunate time in the spotlight, to the ad-blocking wars that have just begun, there’s been plenty of interesting writing to keep you busy for a good while. Grab your favorite beverage and get comfy.
Before we get into the meat of the largely-inconsequential-but-for-some-reason-Earth-shattering-right-now Internet Controversy of the Week, let’s take a minute to shine a light on Ahmed’s story.
You’re no doubt familiar with the particulars of Ahmed’s case by now: a smart 14-year-old Muslim kid from Dallas who built a clock that didn’t really look like a bomb, but got arrested for it anyway, just on the off-chance that it was. The entire situation was handled so poorly that in a matter of hours the entire Internet was set ablaze over the case, with the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed trending worldwide, and even prompting an intervention from Barack Obama himself. Crazy.
All things considered, once the big splash had been made the situation got resolved fairly quickly. However, as is usual in these cases, there’s more to Ahmed’s story. In this piece for The New Yorker, Vauhini Vara analyzes the real implications of these potentially life-ruining situations, and how the Internet is effecting change1 on the way they’re handled:
Social media has, for the first time, allowed people to quickly and easily find support systems among the like-minded and far-flung; those support systems can even include the President. But, after a trending topic has been forgotten, people still have to live where they live. What, Dash wondered, would the child’s relationship with his principal and teachers look like in the future—and what about his family’s standing in Irving itself? Isn’t it conceivable, he asked me, that all the negative attention to the school and the town will, in the long run, harm the Mohamed family rather than help them?
Like it or not, Ahmed is now a world-wide sensation. What his brief time in the spotlight will do to him long-term, it’s still too soon to tell.
Ok, time now for the all-important topic of the week, the ad-blocking wars. As you may know, iOS 9 introduced the ability to create content-blocking apps that make it possible to browse the Web without ever being tracked or seeing any ads. This may sound like a no-brainer to the casual reader, but the reality is that the situation is much more nuanced. For starters, not all ads are created equal, according to some, and there are certainly legitimate reasons to track some of a user’s behavior in order to improve a site’s design, for example.
However, in typical Internet fashion, all the nuance got thrown out the window the minute the first of these content blockers started hitting the App Store. In what is mostly an embarrassing “you-too” exchange of accusations, publishers and users have been blaming each other for it having come to this. I have a well-defined take on the ad-blocking issue, which I’ll share in a bit more detail later on, but for now, let’s just say I’m deeply disappointed by the kindergarten level of discussion we’ve seen so far.
Anyway, let’s get back on point. The first casualty in the so-called ad-blocking war was, ironically enough, the most popular ad-blocker of them all: Marco Arment’s Peace, which had been sitting at the top of the U.S. App Store’s paid app charts for about 36 hours when he decided it was time to pull the app from the store entirely. In a well-reasoned article in his blog, he lays down the reasons for his decision:
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.
Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. This approach is too blunt, and Ghostery and I have both decided that it doesn’t serve our goals or beliefs well enough. If we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required than what I can bring in a simple iOS app.
Whether I agree with Marco’s take and decision on this is irrelevant. I deeply respect him and it, and that’s all that matters. I also appreciate the fact that he took the effort to explain it so openly, even going so far as to encourage customers to ask for a refund.
I personally didn’t buy Peace — or any other ad blocker, for that matter — but if I had, I certainly wouldn’t ask for a refund. After all, the app will probably continue to work for a pretty long time, so existing customers will get what they paid for in terms of utility. The fact that Marco, knowing this full well, still offered the refund anyway just goes to show that money isn’t the most important factor behind this decision.
It also goes to show that, even at a difficult time when he’s breaking the trust of his customers, he’s still a class act.
Moving on to another piece on the ad-blocking kerfuffle. On one side of the argument there are people who believe blocking ads is a legitimate course of action, and publishers are the ones to blame for having abused the implicit contract with their readers by tracking their every move and using overly obtrusive ads on their sites. Jonathan Poritsky makes an additional point: that Web ads are so annoying because they don’t even work that well for publishers to begin with, which is the reason they’re forced to show so many of them:
The reason you see so many ads load at once on so many sites is because they don’t pay very well. Publishers seem to think the answer to diminishing returns on ads is… more ads! I’m no economist but that sounds a lot like publishers are driving down the value of their own content big time. The value of those ads is already approaching zero.
On top of that they’re aggressively user-hostile. They gray out the page or take you to a splash screen. They cover up huge swaths of content or even paper over every image on the page. Worst of all they flip you out from the browser and into the App Store to buy something. And yes I have seen sites load all of these at once. Enough.
Browsing with ad blockers on mobile is a breath of fresh air. Sites load fast and take me right to the content I want to see. No bullshit. That publishers made a Faustian bargain to peddle terrible, obtrusive content isn’t my problem.
Ben Thompson on the reality of Web-based advertising:
It is easy to feel sorry for publishers: before the Internet most were swimming in money, and for the first few years online it looked like online publications with lower costs of production would be profitable as well. The problem, though, was the assumption that advertising money would always be there, resulting in a “build it and they will come” mentality that focused almost exclusively on content product and far too little on sustainable business models.
In fact, publishers going forward need to have the exact opposite attitude from publishers in the past: instead of focusing on journalism and getting the business model for free, publishers need to start with a sustainable business model and focus on journalism that works hand-in-hand with the business model they have chosen. First and foremost that means publishers need to answer the most fundamental question required of any enterprise: are they a niche or scale business?
Much of the ad-blocking debate hinges on a very important topic: should websites respect their readers? The answer is an obvious yes, but how? Take Apple’s website, for example. It is widely considered a great website, with an attractive design that is fun to browse. People seem to love it. However, is it really respectful towards its visitors? As this piece goes to show, even Apple has a lot to change:
This web page was over 32 MB, and took 1.5 minutes to load. When most web professionals say that your web pages should generally load in less than 10 seconds, this Apple page is an aberration. Naturally, the time it takes to load is because of graphics, not text. So the top graphic loads first, progressively, then more graphics load. As I scroll down the page, I see blocks of text with no graphics around them, and then each graphic loads slowly. Scrolling on this page is painful. This is no way to present a product.
Respect is about more than a careful presentation of content. It needs to consider how that content is delivered as well. Abusing a reader’s data plan, processing power and battery life without a very good reason to do so, isn’t very respectful at all.
Alright, moving on. This is a cool post from the archives of Alex Cornell’s blog. If you like reading about other people’s creative setups, you’ll greatly enjoy this.
Interesting — and somewhat depressing — piece by Jason Kottke on the likely future of NASA:
The plutonium shortfall makes it impossible for NASA to plan future missions that would require it, but in the absence of specific mission needs, nobody wants to make any more. Solar-powered craft could eventually fill in the gap, but the technology’s not there yet.
So the stars get further and further away.
Super-cool photo-story on a few secret skateboarding locations in Moscow: the top of abandoned Soviet-era buildings. Unreal:
Moscow’s landscape is filled with Soviet-era buildings, many of them shuttered after the privatisation programme of the Nineties. Built for the people’s benefit, they are now shut away off from public access, patrolled by security guards, most of whom never dream of exploring the upper floors.
But it is the roof of the Moscow pavilion that brings us here. Because of its concave shape the roof looks like a giant skate ramp. My friends and I want to see if it can perform like one too.
So good. And the pictures are also incredible.
This is a pretty surreal story: Rachel Bujalski is trying to spend 61 days off the grid, that is, disconnected from modern technology. However, it appears she’s not doing it exactly by the book:
Bujalski sleeps in her car and rises with the sun. She heads into town to find a coffee shop with Wi-Fi. She maps out markets, thrift stores, and art centers––places where she’s most likely to find off-the-grid residents. Instagram and social media has also been an immense help. Followers can track her whereabouts online, and contact people they know in the next town, making it easier for her to connect with subjects. “So far in almost every location, I’ve found someone to take me under their wing and show me around, which gets me inside access almost immediately and gains their trust right off the bat,” she says.
Oh, the irony.
As a lover of all things Chaplin, I highly recommend this piece by Richard Brody for The New Yorker:
Chaplin, on that boat in 1910, may have been joking about the triumphant destiny that awaited him in the United States, but once he had realized his basic dream of financial independence, he expanded the boundaries of what independence could mean. His self-realization involved an unprecedented artistic freedom that was bound up with his expansion of the burgeoning, still incipient art of the cinema. As Chaplin developed his on-screen persona, he also made explicit his sense of an artistic calling, through the increased refinement and scope of his films, through the audacious and socially critical subject matter, the anarchic tone, and the exacting craft by which he realized them.
And to cap the week off, what better than Ken Rockwell’s review of the Sony Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 lens. I usually enjoy Ken’s reviews, and this time is no different:
This 55/1.8 is significantly sharper than any zoom for Sony, so it you really want to get all the pixels for which you paid with Sony’s latest cameras, you need this lens.
Like taking a foreign-language class for a language in which you are already fluent, this lens gets an easy A+ for anyone shooting with the Sony system.
There are very few lenses native to Sony’s unique E mount, whose short flange focal distance lets lens designers design superior lenses like this that cannot be made for SLRs. Because there is no flipping reflex mirror to clear, this lens has all the sharpness advantages of rangefinder lenses.
If shooting a Sony E-mount camera, you need one of these, and there are no real substitutes. Attempting to adapt a Sony or Alpha or MAXXUM lens will work, but be bigger, clunkier, and lack the optical performance.
If you’re reading this, just get one. Like a Porsche, there is no substitute.
You heard the man.
So where do I come down, exactly, on the whole ad-blocking debate? Let me explain.
First of all, I believe ad blockers are not the main problem of online advertising. Far form it. This is a system that’s been broken for years, possibly even decades, and ad-blockers are merely the latest evidence of that.
I don’t use one. For starters, I haven’t yet updated my iPhone to iOS 9, so I couldn’t have installed one even if I’d wanted to. The reason for that is I’m still working on an iOS 8 update of an app, and for that I need my phone to remain iOS 8-based for the next couple of weeks, at least. But I digress.
The real reason I don’t use one is that I don’t really feel like I need it. Over the years, I’ve gotten extremely good at ignoring Web ads, to the point where I don’t even see them anymore. That’s totally a thing, by the way.
Now, am I opposed to people using ad blockers? Not at all. Like Jonathan Poritsky said on the aforelinked piece, every user has the right to decide what gets loaded on their browser, and if certain tools offer more control over that, I’m cool with people using them.
That being said, what happens when people use these tools to block “legitimate” ads? That is, after all, the crux of the issue, isn’t it? Well, that’s a bummer for responsible publishers, no doubt, but it’s still merely a reflection of a reality that has long existed.
Do legitimate ads even exist anymore, anyway?
Let’s go back to last week for a moment, when ad blockers were still unavailable for the general public on iOS. If a user was so uninterested in a publisher’s ads back then that they couldn’t wait to install an ad blocker, was it really legitimate for that publisher to count the user’s pageviews for their own benefit?
I don’t think so.
I think most publishers — and I’m referring here to huge sites and independent publishers alike — had grown so focused on traffic and eyeballs that they’d forgotten to ask themselves a really important question: those ads I’m serving, do they provide any value to my readers at all, or are they merely tolerable nuisances?
If the answer is that your ads are tolerable at best, I’d say you have some soul searching to do.
When your readers don’t want to look at your ads, maybe it’s because those ads are not worth looking at to begin with. I’m no expert, but if you’re in that situation as a publisher, forcing your readers to look at them anyway may not be the smartest course of action.
Ad blockers will not be the end of online advertising, but hopefully they’ll bring about a positive change in the way publishers and advertisers interact with readers. In this war, it will not be publishers or advertisers who will receive the most damage, but those who have become rich by commoditizing a business that should have always stayed deeply personal.
Ad networks, I’m looking at you.
The value proposition that ad networks offer publishers and advertisers is pretty clear: just let us do our thing, and you’ll get relevant and profitable ads served automatically to your readers. You see, it’s the “automatically” part that’s the problem.
By commoditizing the entire ad industry, ad networks have basically run the entire online ad business model into the ground, effectively digging a very deep hole for themselves in the process. Whether some ad networks are less evil than others is irrelevant by now. After years of fighting diminishing returns with more of the same, the situation has finally become untenable.
Just saying “don’t block the good ad networks” is not solving the problem, it’s putting a band-aid on a severed limb.
At this point, it doesn’t matter how much people like John Gruber defend these supposedly good ad networks. The reality is — and people know it — that there’s no way to build a successful ad network without incurring in some of the bad practices they were supposed to address in the first place. You can’t participate in a massive network that rotates ads across tens of different websites and still claim that those ads are somehow tailored specifically to your readers.
Simply put, you can’t treat something as a commodity and still pretend it is super valuable. By relying on ad networks to do their job for them, publishers and advertisers were trying to have their cake and eat it, too. And the surreal thing is, they actually got away with it for years! Well, not anymore.
The way I see it, the burden falls squarely on publishers to defend their readers’ time and attention and protect their trust. By placing that trust in the hands of an ad network, as ethical and well-intentioned as that network may be, they were effectively taking a gamble. Admittedly, it’s been a gamble that’s worked out pretty well for them for a long time, but as Gruber himself said, a reckoning is coming.
If there is a way out of this ad-blocking conundrum it has to start by making online ads relevant and valuable again. And the only way that’s going to happen is if publishers start working directly with advertisers again to create actually relevant and useful ads for their readers, much like podcasting ads and native sponsored posts have been doing for years.
Just like Gruber has long had individually-booked sponsorship slots for Daring Fireball and The Talk Show, which he either sells himself or has someone else — an actual person — sell for him, it is now time for Web ads to be individually sold and self hosted, as well. If this proves to be an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to breathe life back into a long-doomed business model — and that may well be the case — then so be it.
If publishers, big and small alike, don’t start to genuinely respect their readers’ time and attention — as opposed to merely pretending to and offloading the actual work to a 3rd party — the only people responsible for their downfall will be themselves.
On that note, I think it’s time to close this week’s issue. I’m swamped with work these days, and I’ve already taken enough of your time.
It also looks like things are about to get even busier in the coming weeks. There’s another MFT lens review in the pipeline over at Tools & Toys, and I’m also hard at work on a couple of related projects that I hope will see the light of day soon, so there’ll be plenty of things to talk about over the week. There’s more to life than online ads, after all.
For now, enjoy the rest of your weekend and, as ever, thank you for reading.