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In defence of ads over subscriptions

This is a third draft trying to focus my opinion on one facet of a very complicated, multi-faceted discussion about Internet, content and monetization. Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep my mind focused enough on the problem I want to talk about to come out with a concise and interesting post.

You may have read my opinion on Internet ads and the more recent commentary on my own “monetization”. If you haven’t, the short version of the story is that I do not think that ads are implicitly evil, but at the same time I don’t think that they are worth the attrition for most sites, particularly if very small. My blog, and Autotools Mythbuster, are not exactly unknown sites, but they are still small enough that dealing with Ads is barely worth it for most people, and clearly not worth it for me.

For big, global and media sites, ads are still (for the most part) the way to get money, and to keep running. And that is true whether those sites started as “blogosphere” Internet-native sites, like Ars Technica, or as online versions of establishment news papers like The New York Times. And particularly as you go big, and you want to have curated content, secure content and (extremely important here!) good and verified content, you have costs that add up and that require some level of income to maintain.

You can see that with, whose content is very well curated, and is for the most part paid contributions — I can tell you that the folks over there, starting from Jonathan, would not be able to afford such a great edited content if they had no income on it. It takes time to do so, and you can’t run it as a side project or moonlighting job. Or for a more mainstream example, take what’s happening with Snopes.

One of a common talking point I hear from many companies that are involved in advertising on the Internet, including the company I work for, is that we “enable free content publishing on a global scale”. It may sounds as a platitude written this way, and sound hollow. But once you think it twice or thrice over, it starts to ring true. Because all that content would not be able to pay for the wages of the people involved in charitable donations only. Ads do really help with that.

But then I hear the extremists that decide that all ads are bad, install uBlock, and refuse to even consider that the vast majority of both sites and advertisers are trying to make a honest living, and they are neither clickfarms nor malvertisers, even though these two problems are real. And I’m not fond of SEO tactics either, but that’s also something that is not evil by itself. What is the solution, according to some of those people I engaged with at many times? For some of them the answer is to just not expect money for your online content. This works fine for me, nowadays, but it wouldn’t have worked for me before. Also, the people I heard suggesting this before are usually people who have not tried producing high-quality content before. As I wrote years ago the amount of effort spent writing a blog post is minuscule compared to that needed for me to write a simple article for LWN. And indeed, I got paid for my effort for those — $100 sounds like a lot for writing, but turns out it’s well below minimum wage by the amount of time involved.

The alternative is of course saying that the answer is to sell ad-free subscriptions instead. Which is cool by me in general, but that can only work if those who can’t afford the subscriptions are indeed not using adblockers for everything. But that is clearly not the case, and it can’t be the case as long as malvertising is indeed a risk for most people. And my reason to have this opinion is that by relying on a subscription-only model, you end up either significantly limiting the gamut of content that is available on the Internet, or its availability to the public.

We have for instance all cursed at the bother of paywalls when trying to get to content that may be interesting, or even vital, to us. But the paywall is probably the only way to make sure that the content is paid for, with a subscription. This way you don’t risk the “cheaters” that will not subscribe but also won’t offer their attention so that advertisers can fill in for those subscriptions. Paywalls are nasty and I would not advocate for them. They limit access to information, dividing people into those who can afford to be informed, and those who can’t.

There is the other option of this of course, which is the “tip-jar” option: you provide free access to the information, with no advertisement, but you have a public support campaign that suggests people to provide money for the content, either by direct subscription or by providing fundraising campaigns, such as Patreon. The problem with this system is that it’s skewed towards the content that is of interests to the people with more disposable income. It’s the same problem as the prototypes coming in on Kickstarter and similar sites: since I’m a well-paid tech employee, I can afford to finance hobby projects and content that interests me, which means the creator will try to pander to my taste by providing projects and content that appeal to well paid tech employees. And then there is the occasional situation in which those tech employees grow a heart, a passion, or more properly just want to be some sane, decent, human beings and decide to pay for content, projects, services or charities that they have no stakes in.

But if you write content that is targeted to a group of people with no disposable income, you probably would feel better if you knew that honest companies with an advertising budget underpin your wages, rather than feeling at the mercy of the magnanimity of some people who are not your target audience, and may one day just disagree with you, your message or your method, and just cut your funds. Although of course, this is also a double-edged sword, as we’ve seen that hateful content can be cut from ads revenue but persist through the deep pocket of the people wanting the message to stay out.

Where does this leave us? I’m not sure. I just think that the subscription model is not the nice good solution that I hear some people suggest. I also find it quite ironic that a number of people who suggested this option – and told me explicitly that they think content should either be able to make people pay for their content or not get money out of it – are further to the left of me, and appear disgusted at the suggestion that the free market is here to stay. Well, guess what they just described for content? And yeah it’s not perfect, far from it.

Honestly, I really would like for super-partes agencies to be able to distribute funds, fairly gathered, into diverse content creators. But that is very hard to accomplish. The obvious answer would be to let the government collect taxes and redistribute it in funds for the art. But we also know that providing the government with the task of redistributing money for content leads to the government publishing only content that looks favourable to those in charge. And I’m not really sure there is much of a better option nowadays.

I should probably write another post talking about funding sources like the old Flattr and the Brave browser, but that’s a topic for another time.

Comments 1
  1. “Honestly, I really would like for super-partes agencies to be able to distribute funds, fairly gathered, into diverse content creators.”For a different model try BATs Basic Attention Tokens.…OTOH no idea if this will be widely adopted. Perhaps if there is wide support among browsers… I don’t think it will be possible to require the “BRAVE” browser…but then I never thought in 1996 AOL would be a solid investment at 14 dollars a share since I didn’t see them as a valid internet provider.

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