Have you ever wondered how many successive dump trucks it would take to run over your laptop until it was ground into a fine dust? I clicked on a link last week and three different autoplay videos blared at once. I panicked and closed my computer. The internet has been awash in ads for decades, but in the past few years, a shift has taken place. The internet isn’t for people anymore. It is for advertisements.
I understand that an appropriate reaction to that statement might be something like: no shit. But until recently, advertisements were more of a nuisance than a corroding force. The out-of-whack ad ecosystem has left the web an ass-ugly swamp of pop-ups and advertorial gobbledygook. “As analytics proved the inefficacy of ads, costs came down. Publishers made up for this by adding more ads, including pop-ups, interstitials, and autoplay videos,” Hanson O’Haver wrote for The Outline. “These things led users to install ad blockers, which contributes to the vicious circle. As fewer people are presented with ads, sites adopt ever more intrusive methods for targeting the remaining users.”
O’Haver published his piece in April, and since then, new and impressively annoying ways to shove ads into the internet have been introduced. “Facebook Inc.’s news feed is running out of room for advertisements,” a recent Wall Street Journal piece begins. Is that an indication that, finally, the web is reaching an advertising saturation point? Alas, no. While the number of ads in its News Feed may be close to “hitting a ceiling,” Facebook plans to jack up its prices and find “new slots for ads in videos and its messaging apps.” Facebook will also soon turn up the volume on its autoplay ads to make them harder to ignore. Google is testing the insertion of autoplay advertisements directly into its search results (at least for desktop users, while mobile users have to click to play the videos), meaning that in addition to scrolling past “sponsored” results, people may have to sit through a commercial while they’re reviewing their search results online. Facebook’s Messenger service has begun serving ads in a digital space traditionally reserved for person-to-person contact, while its chatbots are attempting to make buying everything from a concert ticket to a used car part of the Messenger experience.
The problem goes far beyond the way that advertisements clutter up the web, although the cumulative impact of the increasingly obstructive ads has left many websites both unpleasant and impractical to visit. Ads aren’t just defacing the internet, they are warping it. Social networks are now changing their user experiences to accommodate ads, to the detriment of their users. Most major social media sites, including Instagram and Twitter, have defaulted to nonchronological feeds, which means instead of seeing the posts of accounts one follows in order, users are now presented with an inscrutably arranged collection of friends’ old posts and, increasingly, advertisers’ promoted content. Both Twitter and Instagram have provided credulity-stretching excuses for the switch, insisting it’s better for users to see a mix of three-day-old posts from friends and a whole slew of ads instead of an of-the-moment feed of what is happening. But as someone who has used both social networks before and after their changes, I call bullshit. The feeds are noticeably harder to follow along with and noticeably more packed with ads.
Even more disturbing, particularly for those of us in the media, is how some panicked publishers have reacted in this ecosystem. Companies are “pivoting to video.” MTV News, for example, recently cut its online writing staff in favor of producing short entertainment news videos. Layoffs to accommodate “pivots to video” have affected newsrooms at Vice, Fox Sports, and Vocativ this summer. At first glance, the “pivot” appears a delirious mistake. Video, after all, is far more expensive to produce than a written article. It’s often quicker and easier to read than to watch. The explanation for the obsession with video is simple: Advertisers will pay more to promote their products in video format than they will for in-article ads. “Brands prefer to buy ads against video content than text, the thinking being that consumers are more likely to sit down and pay attention to an ad when it precedes a video they want to watch than they would be if the ad simply appears next to an article they’re reading,” New York magazine’s Brian Feldman explained in a postmortem about MTV’s pivot.
What’s more, some of the videos these companies are producing are nothing more than advertisements in and of themselves. Business Insider, for example, is one of the media companies now repackaging advertisements as native content. “For publishers, repackaging a commercial is often a simple process that can take an experienced video editor relatively little time, and the result is a win-win situation for all parties,” the Wall Street Journal reported. But this new model seems to have forgotten one of the parties: the audience, which is now being served advertisements as though they are journalism.
The internet was not always beholden to or driven by the world of advertising. Commercial ads were banned from early systems like ARPANET and the National Science Foundation Network until the 1990s. A rogue marketer named Gary Turk created the first internet advertisement, in the form of a spam message, in 1978. He used ARPANET’s directory to send 400 people an invitation to a demo of a product he was pushing. The community reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that it took more than a decade for someone to try again, Turk told Time. “If anyone dared to sell something online, that person would likely be ‘flamed,’ meaning that other outraged internet users would clog the individual’s email inbox with contemptuous messages demanding that the sales pitch be removed,” sociology professor John Bellamy Foster and communications professor Robert W. McChesney wrote in 2011. “This internal policing by internet users was based on the assumption that commercialism and an honest, democratic public sphere did not mix.”
As for the origins of advertisements clogging screens, the now-defunct online magazine HotWired launched the first display banner ads in 1994, but they were far less obtrusive than the loud, full-length commercials which now must be played before you can even enter some websites. And while Facebook introduced ads in 2004, they were small boxes to the side of profiles, not competition for friends’ content in the News Feed.
As the internet expanded at a galloping pace and then a full-on sprint, from academic and governmental research tool to newfangled communication hub to the very scaffolding of modern life, it underwent seismic changes, and the introduction of ads was vital to how it grew. Ads have been the lifeblood of the media and entertainment industries for years. Classifieds kept alt-weeklies afloat; television commercials both allowed for and have sustained network television. Advertisements used to provide financial support for the media, but online, it's increasingly easy to see some media outlets as a support structure for different kinds of ads.
I don’t begrudge the existence of commercial spaces or advertisements online. For starters, they’re helpful for people who want to make purchases online, including me. One of my favorite new web verticals is New York magazine’s The Strategist, which isn’t technically sponsored content, but which exists to nab the company more money through affiliate links. The problem isn’t that the internet functions as a marketplace. It’s that, increasingly, the marketplace function is not only superseding but interfering with and corrupting its other functions. It’s that media companies, rather than simply relying on advertisers to subsidize their work, are now erasing the line between commercial and journalism. It’s that “social network” companies like Facebook were, right out of the gate, hybrid media and advertising companies with no strong line between commerce and communication. These companies are prioritizing how their advertisers want the internet to be over what their audiences want the internet to be.
A 2006 Economist article on the rise of online advertising praised its advent for “eliminat[ing] scarcity in the medium” of marketing. “There are as many web pages for advertisers as there are keywords that can be typed into a search engine,” the piece explains triumphantly. It is more true now than it was then, in that webpages are for advertisers now. There’s no scarcity for advertisers, but there is a paucity of digital spaces that haven’t been fine-tuned and defined by advertisements.