The ad is a fantastic invention. It has the uncanny ability to transform use value into a kind of crude exchange value. The useful or fun thing draws attention and that attention is then monetized by offering people with money the chance to put a message in front of some eyeballs. It is an exceptionally elegant solution to something that Karl Marx predicted would be a near-insolvable problem for capitalists: finding new frontiers to privatize and profit off of. Back in 2006 the Economist went so far as to proclaim that the Internet was “The Ultimate Marketing Machine.” Not only can it serve up more eyeballs than any newspaper or gridlocked highway, it provides tools to let the advertiser know if the ad was noticed. This innovation has provided a solid revenue source for everything from brand new things like social networking to very old institutions like journalism. If you invented a thing, but have no idea how to turn it into a living, the quickest and easiest way to start earning money is to slap an ad on the thing.
Maybe that’s a little flippant. Ads aren’t necessarily easy to do right. You can break or severely hobble a great new thing if you keep interrupting a person’s interaction with it. The best TV show will suck if it is punctuated by commercials every thirty seconds. You have to strike a balance and that balance is hard to find now that lots and lots of people have gotten a taste of ad-free living. And of course people have different tolerance levels. I have a hard time writing without music in the background but I absolutely cannot abide lyrics or words because I’ll actually start writing them down. So while lots of my friends put up with the free version of Spotify I have always paid for the premium version. An ad-supported Spotify would be useless to me.
Pay for the product yourself, or let advertising do its magic have been our only two choices for a long time even before the Great Magical Eyeball Corralling Device expanded the boundaries of capitalist accumulation to the most intimate moments of construction and performance of self. “Media has always compromised user experience for advertising,” writes The Verge’s Nilay Patel, “that’s why magazine stories are abruptly continued on page 96, and why 30-minute sitcoms are really just 22 minutes long.” Patel warns that anyone smaller than the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google will become collateral damage in an all-out war to undercut each-other’s revenue streams and grow their own. “It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.”
This is largely true, although “always” and “bloodbath” are exceedingly strong words. The Society Pages (that’s us) and The New Inquiry do not advertise on their sites. Jacobin advertises minimally and most of their advertisers are other magazines and book publishers. Wikipedia also seems to fly in the face of this narrative. It is not radical, in fact it is distinctly plausible in the here and now, to produce content with little-to-no advertising. Striking a balance between making something and making that something profitable is an issue of organizational mission, not technical ability. It is at once a design choice and a political decision. That is what I was getting at when I tweeted this last week:
Full communism is the ultimate ad blocker.
— d a banks (@DA_Banks) September 18, 2015
A universal basic income is a kind of ad blocker. If I could be guaranteed 30k a year and health insurance I could spend a long time fiddling around with an idea until I got it just right, and then start to supplement my base income. That is essentially what venture capital does now, but with much higher stakes and too-short of a time scale. Companies that get millions of dollars have to make millions more to satisfy their investors. Doing things differently, not taking VC, building slowly and steadily, is a necessary but not sufficient condition (hi Ello) for building successful organizations outside of the VC rat race.
The ad blocker should not be seen as a selfish technology. It is a socialist cudgel—something that forces otherwise lazy capitalists to find new and inventive ways to make their creations sustainable. Ad blockers are one of the few tools users have to fight against the need to monetize fast and big because it troubles the predictability of readily traceable attention. Sure none of us are entitled to all of these things for free, but we should also be talking about the entitlement of venture capitalists who horde enormous sums of money so that they may play kingmaker and demand even more money in return.
Historians of this time will probably gawk in awe at the supremely strange economics surrounding what has been branded the “sharing economy.” They will describe immensely talented people groveling for piles of cash from sociopaths so that they may make intangible goods that are only compelling because they provide fun or structure social action that is only barely (and maybe even begrudgingly) shoehorned into a larger ideology of profit production.
Economics journalist Paul Mason has argued that this completely bizarre scenario is actually the playing out of Marx’s theories about the end of capitalism. Information technology may be offering up new frontiers to privative but it is also, “corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly.” The response by capitalists have been centralization and monopoly. The leftist response prescribed by Mason is to form dual power institutions, “alternatives within the [capitalist] system” that let lots of people decamp from profit-driven action and instead work on meaningful things in a collaborative manner.
Mason’s full argument has yet to be published (I am citing only the first chapter published in the Guardian) but however he fully articulates this postcapitalist future, it will have to contend with not just monopolist organizations like Google, but with venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Fidelity. In fact, VC has a much stronger position to keep all of this sharing and nonmarket activity firmly within capitalist logic because the companies they buy a stake in must turn a profit. Monopolies, on the other hand, contain one of the many contradictions of capital: once you win in the market it actually behooves you to stop acting quite like a profit-seeking enterprise and instead look to increase marginal returns. That means a project at Google or Apple can run at a short term loss so long as it contributes in the aggregate to long-term gains or as a PR campaign to keep up appearances.
For Example, take the humble note keeping tool Evernote. I was an early adopter of Evernote. I used it in 2009 for my thesis in college and it holds the notes for every graduate class I’ve ever taken. When I go into a meeting I have Evernote in full screen where I write down sentences that I later stare at and wonder: what the hell does that mean? (I am bad at note taking.) I’m starting to rethink this six-year-old relationship though, now that Evernote has started to deliver ads for their premium service at a rate of about once or twice a month on every device. It’s a fairly standard freemium business model and it sucks. It sucks because it gets the balance of attention wrong, especially given that a note-taking app has to respond quickly to a user who wants to record what someone said or refer back to their notes in the midst of a writing frenzy.
Moreover, it sucks because it feels like a bait and switch. All of my notes are stored in this service, many of them when ads in Evernote were relegated to a tiny box in the lower left. Now I have to make a decision based on sunk costs: do I pay for the premium service, deal with the intrusive advertising, or spend a significant amount of time migrating to a new service? This is a definitely a design problem because it is all about the relationship between humans and a built object and how one another functions. But this is also a problem of economics and overall mission. The design would have more time to incubate if Evernote’s creators were able to sustain themselves on a guaranteed basic income and hadn’t had to immediately seek out the profit and growth possibilities of a VC firm. It is worth noting that many of Evernote’s competitors (Microsoft’s OneNote, Google Docs and Drive) are run by companies that have a monopoly in something that gives them the ability to give away these products as part of a larger profit-making ecosystem.
All of which is to say that discussions of blocking ads, paying for music, native advertising, and whatever weird thing Facebook is doing with news are really about one’s willingness to advance an idea (whether that be a think piece or software) by any means necessary, or if we are willing to at least acknowledge that means by which we achieve our ends are consequential. In the same way The Verge might yawn at another photo sharing app that duplicates the function of Instagram, so too should we yawn and roll our eyes at organizations that promise to grow and finance themselves through venture funding, exhortative forms of freemium upgrading, and ad revenues. These worked imperfectly in the past and new ones are needed now.
I know I am not the first person to find startup funding problematic. The meteoric rise of Ello let us know that lots of people care about how information technology funds itself. The trick now is to build something that is compelling outside of its own stated manifesto. Something that stands on its own merits, not just on its overtly stated politics no matter how laudatory those might be. I suspect that whatever it is that breaks us free of this unwinnable debate between using ad blockers or succumbing to increasingly intrusive advertising, will be the product of a social program and not a technological breakthrough.
If we want small, creative, and responsible organizations that make cool things for us all to play with, we are going to need to open up many more opportunities for people to have that kind of life. Capitalism, as it turns out, never gives you that opportunity without a hefty price. Sometimes that means working inside of an enormous company that has its own pernicious kinds of self-interest that undermine the idealism of the smaller group. Sometimes it means working under the deadlines of VCs. Anyone that does not want to compromise themselves like that has to already be living the kind of charmed life that comes with luxury bicycles or inherited wealth. In short, it is socialism and compelling feature sets for the rich, capitalism and ads for the rest of us.