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.