If It’s Free, You’re Not The Customer — You’re The Product

(Some) journalists are celebrating The Onion, the satirical web newspaper, becoming an incredible 25 years old. If you ever needed to give the lie to the myth that Americans don’t do irony, read The Onion.

Some articles and captions are funnier than others, but when they hit the mark, they hit it hard. One of the recent ones mentioned today was “Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’s VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning.”  — purportedly from the Managing Editor of CNN.com (purportedly a serious news website).

Spam advert You will read that article, I’m sure, but the gist of it is that web publishers don’t care about anything but clicks and views. As The Onion puts it, “All you are to us, and all you will ever be to us, are eyeballs. The more eyeballs on our content, the more cash we can ask for.”

The “cash” comes from advertisers, of course. Since they’re giving away their “news” for free, CNN.com pays for itself, and possibly even makes a profit, from selling ads. Likewise, Facebook is an advertising company. Google is an advertising company. Twitter is an advertising company. Even The Onion is an advertising company, I assume.

shoes advertI say “I assume”, because I’m not qualified to judge, given that I never see advertising on the internet. I don’t mean I ignore it; it literally doesn’t appear on my screen (or phone). Ever.

It’s pretty clear to me that the model the web advertising industry has in mind is that of television ads. You know, they interrupt your programmes and you don’t have any choice, but you put up with them in order to get the free television content. (Or, if you’re a Sky subscriber, the content you’re paying for.) I suppose the majority of, say, Facebook users think of the ads on their computer screen in exactly the same way, but, actually, the internet doesn’t work like that.

Marlbro advertA web page isn’t like a television programme, streaming from broadcaster to your box, with adverts inserted. A web page is more like a menu. Your computer is supposed to say “Yes, I’ll have That. And some of That. None of That. And hold the ads.” But, normally, it just orders everything on the menu. Though it doesn’t have to.

You might think that mighty technical wizardry must be required to stop the ads, or else everyone would be doing it, but it’s really very, very simple; and I don’t know why everyone isn’t doing it. The exact details depend on what your system and browser are (Linux and Firefox for me) but there’s a solution for every situation. You might do an internet search for “adblock”, or read the Wikipedia article  for more information.

Babycham advertThere was once an American television executive who claimed that viewers were “stealing from the company” if they skipped past adverts on recorded programmes. Am I being immoral by reading The Onion, without ever seeing their advertisers’ material? Certainly, if everyone started skipping the ads and the advertisers knew, The Onion would have to either go out of business or start charging for access.

Apple advertAnd similarly, every other web newspaper, forum, social site, media sharing, searching, storage, small ads — everything which offers a “free” service paid for by advertising. (eBay would survive, because they already have a business model which involves (gasp) charging fees.)

It would be a huge change to the spirit of the internet — people are used to getting stuff for free — and surely there would be resistance. Certainly, the sites which have changed to a payment model, such as The Times newspaper, have struggled to achieve profitability, although in an ad-free world, The Times might not be competing against free news of the quality and quantity that exists today.

I think the positives outweigh the negatives. CNN.com wouldn’t have to lead with Miley Cyrus. (Maybe. Today’s Times paid-for web issue has Ms Cyrus on the front page.) The replacements for Facebook and Google wouldn’t have to be so creepy about collecting personal information to sell. You would have a legal right to get the service you pay for. Oh, and a lot of advertising executives would be out of work. Surely that’s an upside.


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