the fall of advertising

I don’t know what the crossover is between permaculture and plant nerds (and gardeners, farmers, sustainability seekers, etc.) and technology nerds, but I fall into that demographic.

And, like most people who spend any amount of time online, I hate online advertising. I despise uutoplay video and audio on websites (even non-advertising video and audio, to be fair). Ads prepended to my video feeds so that in order to watch <cool new music video> I have to sit through <boring and irrelevant advert for something I don’t want or need> are obnoxious. Even the banner ads on most sites irritate me, with their blaringly loud colours and inclination to use up to 60% of the screen. So I use ad-blocker software. Lots of people do – increasing numbers of us in fact, 50% or more of the users on some sites.

A story linked on Slashdot a few days ago highlighted the problems that ad blockers cause for a lot of journalists and news sites – if they don’t get any revenue from ads, where will they get enough revenue to survive? Advertisers are becoming disillusioned with the whole web advertising thing as a way to target potential customers, because even if some people do still allow ads, at least non-invasive ads, enough people disable them completely to make the advertising not really financially viable.

It puts  journalists in the same boat as visual artists, authors of fiction, animators and musicians. How do you get paid to do what you do? The traditional ways for artists to get paid were patronage (which, these days includes distributed patronage – e.g. Kickstarter) and busking, i.e. donations.

Paywalls are a dead-end alley, in that there is so much information and entertainment available online for free that asking for payment to even visit a news site in case there’s something interesting or important there just sends a lot of users to another site. Patronage is an option, but most direct patrons these days are corporations and we all know what happens when journalists or scientists have their salaries paid by corporations. Distrubuted patronage works best for one-of things – a documentary, an album, an invention going to market, a specific novel or graphic novel. It isn’t such a good model for ongoing work like day to day journalism and reporting.

It is possible that a journalist could ask for payments for individual articles, paywalling the articles rather than the entire site on which they reside. I think that’s a good model – let us read the first paragraph or a summary, and then ask for a micropayment to read the full article. But doing that requires a reputation for high quality content, and a niche in which the free content is not as high quality as the content you provide. In other words, it’s hard, especially for news organisations which would then have to deal with how much of the micropayment went to the writer, how much to the photographer or videographer, and how much to the site itself, not to mention the less visible employees like administrators, proofreaders, and typesetters.

Which leaves you with donations. The poor cousin of income generation schemes.

Donations are hard, but they might work. A lot of sites now include ‘Donate’ or ‘Flattr‘ buttons to allow micropayments from users. But it’s tough to know how well it works – are those webcomic authors making a decent living on donations and merchandising, or are they subsidised bya  day job or a partner with a day job? Without knowing how viable it is, journalists and news sites are unlikely to try it.

Which brings us to the actual, original point of this post: someone is running an experiment with voluntary micropayments, which is linked on Slashdot. No actual money is involved, it’s just theoretical. You add an app to your bookmarks toolbar, and then when you find content you enjoy you click on one of those links (1 to 3 cents), depending on how amazing you thought the content was. Your “tip” is recorded, and that’s it. There’s a summary page that tells you how much you would have spent, and the experimenter will be releasing anonymized analyses of the data to see if this sort of system is viable in the wild. I think it’s a pretty neat experiment. If you’re game, go sign up.