The Cold War for Eyeballs

The Grand Alliance.

When banner ads were invented, they helped make our open and free web commercially viable, and helped it grow. Call it an alliance of necessity.

It could never last.

Like the Cold War, there was too much ideological conflict between capitalism and common ownership. Advertising is about keeping your viewers on your channel, but the web is meant to be open and connected - that’s why it’s called the web.

Now, we’re at the highest point of tension, in this battle between the advertising industry and our open web.

An advertising arms race.

People got better at ignoring ads, and in response, ads got more invasive. Invasive, by being flashier and louder. Invasive, by tracking your every page visit.

But before too long, viewers learned to block and tune out these ads again, with an even higher tolerance. Advertisers then attempted to overcome this, with even more invasive tactics.

The vicious cycle gets more vicious.

Casualties of war.

Digital advertising isn’t just an annoyance, it’s actively breaking our open web.

  • RSS feeds died because they can’t deliver ads effectively, and they let people view content outside of a publisher’s channel.
  • Twitter restricted their API, to many developers’ chagrin, so users would have to go to their official apps to see their Promoted Tweets.
  • Facebook tracks your browsing habits across every web page with a Like button, and sells this information to advertisers.

They’ve fragmented what used to be our open web, just to milk eyeballs. It’s like they built the Berlin Wall, just to post flyers on it.

But we shall tear down this wall.

Advertising revenue is dwindling. Economic pressures were what fell the Soviet Union, and they too, will be the downfall of an ad-driven internet.

Paradoxically, as tragic as the Cold War was, it was a great time of innovation. We went to the moon. We invented the internet. Likewise, the advertising model is in shambles, and we’re seeing great alternatives rising to claim its throne.

  • Penny Arcade crowdfunded half a million dollars for a (mostly) advertisement-free site.
  • App.net, unlike Twitter, charges their users instead of selling their users, and maintains an open, developer-friendly API.
  • Flattr and Gittip are both unique takes on making microdonations and ubiquitous and social as the infamous Like button.

We need more people to join us in our search for fairer ways to support creators. By changing where the money comes from, we can get back our open web.

A web where the content is free, and so are we.


Inspired By:

The Web We Lost
Anil Dash laments the fall of our once open web.

How ecosystems became the new walled gardens
Kevin Kelleher tells of how Facebook and Twitter built closed ecosystems, in service of the advertisers.

How Would You Save Journalism?
An exploration of how journalists are dealing with the decline of advertising, plus an experiment in reader-funded blogging.

Originally an Editor's Pick article on Medium