Last month, the gaming-website Destructoid posted a story about their discovery that half of their users are using Ad-Blocker. The editor of Destructoid wrote about it (quite nicely, by the way) and displayed a message to users to arrived at the site using Ad-Blocker. From there, the story hit Slashdot. I’ll say upfront that I have a hard time feeling entirely compassionate towards a lot of the Slashdot comments. I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve run a business, whereas Slashdot commenters are largely consuming (but not producing) so they don’t have much sympathy for businesses or financials.
It seems to me that there are three possible reactions to ads on a website:
(1) Put up with the ads, keep visiting the site.
(2) Use ad-blocker, keep visiting the site.
(3) Stop visiting the site (you don’t get the content, you don’t get the ads).
Most of the Slashdot responses seem to ignore the existence of option #3. Instead, they seem to act as like ‘Of course, I’m going to get the content, it’s just a question of whether or not I decide to block the ads’. Generally, this takes the form of blaming the site for obtrusive ads (e.g. I wouldn’t block your ads if they weren’t annoying), instead of entertaining the third option (e.g. I stopped visiting your site because of the annoying ads) which would require making a harder choice (since they’d have to give up reading the website’s content).
What struck me is that I seem to have a different kind of ethic when it comes to advertisements. For me, when content is provided for free (but with ads), it’s part of a transaction. In other words, they provide me with content, I provide them with the opportunity to market to me. This helps them pay for bandwidth and the cost of content production. In other words, there’s a transaction going on. From the website’s perspective, the value is switched: they have to produce the content (which costs them time and money) but they gain the opportunity to market to me. This gives them an incentive to keep producing good content, as well as provide them with money to enable them to keep doing so.
This has similarities with other transactions in the free market. For example, I can go to a grocery store and choose to purchase some food. This gives me the benefit of having food, but the downside of paying money. If the transaction is agreeable to both parties (I want the food enough to pay for it, the store wants the money enough to provide me with the food), then he sells the food to me.
What’s interesting, though, is that ad-block technology puts the power in the hands of the user. They can get the content on their terms (“Nah, I think I’ll get the content and block your ads.”) This allows them to act, well, childish – they can get the benefits of the content without the burden of seeing the ads. They certainly aren’t thinking about it in terms of a “transaction”, like I am. In this case, the website can’t withdraw from the transaction. For example, if a store didn’t like my offer of “1 penny for this big bag of food”, they could walk away and there would be no money or food exchanging hands. (I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to piracy, as well.)
In the transactional model, you have options #1 (put-up with the ads, get the content) and #3 (stop visiting the site). Option #2 (ad-blocker) is just breaking transaction. I think what bothers be about option #2 is the fact that it’s always in the users interest to block ads, so why would they ever choose any differently? They can decide, purely on whim, to opt-out of the transaction and still get all the value of the website content.
One thought I had was that, as human beings, we spend the first 22 years of our lives being a leech on other people. (I say 22 years because I’m assuming 4-years of college.) Mostly, our parents are paying for things – schooling , transportation, food, etc. On the balance of production versus consumption, we are firmly on the “consumption” side of things for that first part of our lives. I’d bet that most of the commenters on Slashdot are still in that “consumption” mindset – they use things produced by other people, they rarely think about paying them back for that effort. This is part of the reason college/20-something roommate situations are so volatile: because some roommates will still be in that unthinking “I take, I don’t reciprocate” mindset, which causes problems when you treat your roommate like your parents.
I don’t know how old the slashdot commenters are, but I’m sure it skews young. (According to one poll I saw, the peak age for reddit is 22 years old.) So, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of what’s going on. The problem is that you can’t treat businesses like you treat your parents. Businesses want a more-or-less equal exchange of value. Your parents will put up with kids being a leech on the system, and kids think that’s the way it “should be” because it’s been their reality for most of their life.