Why This Site Has Ads

The Internet killed journalism, only to have online advertising resuscitate it. That tale is part of a larger story - the story of 21st-century capitalism - and it's my best defense for the existence of one meager banner ad.

Published May 12, 2015

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I’ve picked up a few tips from my journalism friends, and one of them – “Don’t Bury the Lede” – seems appropriate here. Thus, the Short Answer:

Advertising helps me cover the costs of my blog writing (I’m not trying to monetize my portfolio or my contact page). There are other, less controversial ways to cover these costs, but those methods don’t make sense for me (at the moment).

Of course, it’s a little more complex than that. Let me explain.

What This Site Is

This site is a personal site, which means it serves three primary functions:

  1. Paint a picture of who I am, providing contact information and acting as a central hub for the other spokes of my digital life (Twitter, GitHub, LinkedIn, etc.)
  2. Host my portfolio of web projects, games, and other work.
  3. Host my blog, where I write #waytoolongreads
  4. I think creators should be paid for their work! I also think, with digital content, which is infinitely reproducible at negligible cost and therefore doesn’t operate on normal supply-demand curves, that creators can get a little trigger-happy with their monetization methods, nickel-and-diming you, as it were.

    The ads aren’t meant to monetize page views for what itself can (cynically, but perhaps accurately) be seen as an advertisement for the product ‘DJ DeWitt’. They’re meant for the blog content – content that takes me a long time to write.

    Some sites offer blogs as free services to direct eyeballs to the actual products they’re trying to sell. I’m not doing this because I don’t believe in devaluing my writing in this way – I want you to come here for my writing, not trick you into coming here with my writing as bait.

    But wait! DJ, you’ve only explained why you want to monetize your site, not why you’re using advertising to do so. We’ll get there! But first, a murder story.

    How The Internet Killed Journalism

    When you create something, the cost of the end product includes both the development (coming up with the idea) and manufacturing (putting it together) costs. Once it exists, anyone can reproduce it, and the cost of those reproductions only include manufacturing. As documentarian Kirby Ferguson puts it in Everything is a Remix, “original creations can’t compete with the price of copies”.

    The problem with online writing is its reproducibility. For any given story, one publication will bare the costs that come with months of reporting, all for a few-hundred word article that is quickly regurgitated by every other web publication.

    Patent and copyright law was invented to protect original creators, so that, in the long run, society wouldn’t just be left with the most effective thieves. It’s a broken system in practice, but, when it comes online writing, it’s a type of system it wouldn’t even make sense to implement.

    The First Amendment states, “ Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. We recognize that access to information is fundamental to a progressive, democratic society. This means that we can’t use copyright-esque law to prevent sites from sharing news that was originally reported elsewhere without threatening our rights and our democracy.

    The subscription-based paywalls have to come down because any news reported behind them can be read nearly instantly, anywhere else, for free. Writers attempt attribution to various degrees of success, but it is ultimately scraps from an already meager portion, not an actual solution to the problem.

    To survive, news sites had to find ways to make money without getting in your way. Advertising, popular in print but banned from the web, was an inevitable solution.

    A Short History of Internet Advertising (and Why People Hate It)

    They Live

    In 1988, John Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween) made They Live, a film where an alien race uses advertising, mass media, and other artifacts of consumer culture to control humanity. Which is to say, our distrust of advertising didn’t begin with The Internet, but it was certainly exacerbated by it.

    Commercial activity was originally banned on ARPAnet (the Internet precursor), but that didn’t stop Digital Equipment Corporation employee Gary Thuerk from sending the first spam email (an ad for the DEC-20, a new computer) to 400 other users. May 1, 1978: Spam was born.

    Advertising spread from email to the wider web in 1994, when HotWired.com (who you now know as Wired magazine) launched the first banner ad. When companies became concerned that their products would be associated with the questionable web content these banner ads sat beside, Ethan Zuckerman used the newly released JavaScript language to have the ad “pop up” in a separate window. Within two weeks, GeoCities, a proto-social network purchased by Yahoo in 1999 for nearly $4 billion, had integrated Zuckerman’s code.

    This brought about Internet advertising’s most overt and frustrating period, which caused surfers to stop clicking and start using AdBlock programs. In return, advertisers have now slingshotted in the opposite direction; using content marketing to make ads “valuable,” camouflaging them to look like real news stories. Overt advertising has been replaced with insidious advertising.

    Content marketing, sponsored posts, native advertising, user profiles – these are the waters we have to navigate today.

    On one hand, it’s possible to see the merits of modern Internet advertising: It subsidizes or outright pays for technology and media you enjoy, it can leverage data to recommend products and services you’d probably like but don’t know about, and, with sponsored content, it gives a channel for experts in their field to share their knowledge.

    On the other hand, the blurring of ad and editorial creates complex relationships that can threaten the integrity of online publications and platforms – the destruction of what is commonly known as “church and state”. To go tit-for-tat with the previous paragraph: It transforms “free” services into data collection services where you are the product being sold to advertisers, it allows advertisers to dynamically make things you want more expensive, and it creates a climate where brands are bolstered by positive puff pieces and negative articles about advertising partners are forcibly removed.

    Zuckerman apologized for creating the pop-up ad in The Atlantic, arguing that advertising was the web’s “original sin” and pleading for web developers to build services that shunted a broken business model that has “trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles.”

    He goes on to argue that, in choosing advertising as “the default business model on the web,” a culture was created that led directly to the extreme government surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden (and our shocking societal apathy towards those revelations). The pop-up ad wasn’t just annoying; it might have destroyed democracy by normalizing government surveillance.

    Thankfully for Zuckerman (and the rest of us,) the pop-up ad was considered too intrusive to survive on the Internet, and banner advertising is generally considered ineffective. This means that the problem of making money on the Internet still hasn't been solved, and every attempt brings with it the possibility of breaking free from advertising's controversial grasp.

    Other Ways I Could Monetize My Site

    Deal With The Devil

    Online writers are constantly coming up with new ways to make their work financially viable.

    Writers with a consistent, faithful audience can be supported directly by their readers through crowd-funding services like Patreon and the writer-specific service Beacon.

    Big-name bloggers have other solutions: John Gruber’s Apple blog Daring Fireball offers weeklong syndicated feed sponsorship, Maria Popova’s bookish culture blog Brain Pickings employs controversial (but profitable) amazon affiliate links, and blogging pioneer Andrew Sullivan’s now-defunct The Dish managed 30,000 subscribers and a million dollars in revenue in two years, arguing at launch that “getting readers to pay a small amount for content was the only truly solid future for online journalism.”

    And then there’s Joshuah Bearman’s and Joshua Davis’ Epic Magazine, which essentially finances long-form journalism by optioning out movie rights (the former’s Wired article on the Iranian hostage crisis became the Best Picture-winning film Argo).

    Not even the biggest, most venerable names in news are safe from disruption. The New York Times (“the newspaper of record”) put together a revelatory, raw, (leaked,) six-month report on their digital strategy, The Washington Post is selling CMS technology and taking other technology-oriented risks under Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ ownership, and Buzzfeed not only champions highly controversial native advertising (ads sponsored by brands and disguised as news stories), but, according to an interview with their CEO Jonah Peretti, literally managed Pepsi’s Twitter account during the Superbowl.

    Unfortunately, most of these strategies are even more controversial than display advertising. As that well dried up, ethical concerns have been sidelined in the mad dash to make enough money to keep writing. That's the problem I'm struggling with as well - how can I make enough money from this site to justify the work I put into it?

    Employee of the World

    “With the tremendous advances in automation and robotics happening after World War II, how could you see an abundance of leisure time as anything but inevitable?” asks Matt Novak in Paleofuture, a blog that explores how the past thought about the future.

    Automation, we were told, was going to make our lives easier – the more work robots did, the less we’d have to do, and the more free time we’d have to relax.

    No matter where you look, the opposite seems to be true. Capitalism’s supervillain team of climate change, disintegrated middle class, income inequality, and mechanization of labor means that the most honest dystopian future will see Mad Max fighting Terminator robots in the Hunger Games for a chance to work Sam Lowry’s job in Brazil (someone has to fix the machines that fix the machines that fix the machines that fix the machines that fix…)

    All great dystopian fiction is rooted in portentous reality. We were already worried that smartphones were threatening work-life balance, then Slack received a $2.8 billion valuation, was adopted by literally every company, and now it’s supposedly fun to digitally be at the office at all times.

    Even when you’re unemployed, you’re always working. Future employees are expected to stoke the flames of their personal brand with a digital presence that expounds their merits across a variety of social media channels (tweeting, live-streaming, writing Medium posts, etc.)

    (Of course, building your career by exposing yourself as much as possible on the Internet leaves you vulnerable to the monstrous hate mobs that will drag your “personal brand” through the mud. Google Search Jenn Frank, an award-winning games journalist with a decade-long career, and the first article you get isn’t her work – it’s about how she quit the industry due to harassment.)

    The hyper-capitalist solution to the problem of “unemployed and always working” is shockingly simple: If you’re going to be unemployed and always working, get paid.

    While there’s no legislative precedent or regulatory title for the woman who adds “Uber driver” to her long list of on-demand economy odd jobs, it hasn’t stopped her (and millions like her) from accepting that, perhaps, the one-job work life is a thing of the past. And it’s different than having a day job and a night job; platform-facilitated work exists in a legal gray area where benefits, protections, and minimum or consistent wage are not guaranteed.

    In lieu of being able to cobble together a job or two that is guaranteed to cover cost of living, New Economy workers must find creative ways to monetize as much of their life as possible. If you’re going to spend time on Facebook, you can use Datacoup to make eight bucks a month selling your own personal data. If you’re going to drive somewhere, you can use BlaBlaCar to pick up paying hitchhikers along the way. And if you’re going to do, well, anything else, you can use YouNow, a live-streaming app where strangers pay to watch you live your life.

    In short: We’re employees of the world, and we’re all working, all the time, on stuff that we’re giving away for free if only because the infrastructure now exists to charge anyone, for anything, pretty much anywhere.

    The takeaway? If we have to live, we might as well get paid for it.

    Disrupting Panhandling

    So, okay, where does DJ fit into all of this?

    As noted above, a blog is a way to reflect your personal brand, and my blog is designed to show off a particular string of skills I have. I voraciously consume news and media, then digest and weave that knowledge into compelling, valuable storytelling. This is a desirable trait on its own (it makes me a more thoughtful and effective leader), but it only manifests clearly through writing, another valuable skill that I actually have a degree for.

    The work I do for my blog could be done for free if I assumed the cost would be paid for by the work I would receive after readers hired me to do things I actually charged for. This is a highly controversial tactic called “working for exposure” – a sort of non-contractual IOU with the universe. The fact is, I don’t want to devalue my work by considering it a means to an end, but rather see it as an end in itself.

    Perhaps I’m devaluing my writing somewhat already by not actually charging for it, but I don’t want a paywall to be a prohibitive cost for cash-strapped readers. Writing takes me a long time and I can’t commit to a schedule because it’s not my full-time occupation, so I don’t want to start a Patreon. I don’t want to entertain native advertising or affiliate links, because I don’t want to risk compromising my editorial voice. And I’m not going to put out a donation button: I’m a privileged white, straight, male from an upper-middle class family with a great day job.

    What I’m trying to say is this. You don’t have to hire me. You don’t have to check out my projects. But I hope you enjoy my writing, and would considering coming back to read more. And if you really don't like the ads on the site, sign up for Google Contributor. You can even pay yourself:

    Beats Working For A Living

    I don’t think it’s ridiculous for me to want to make money writing, an activity I take great pleasure in, without making a career of it. Until living is free, being paid for work you enjoy is the best we can hope for. I want to cultivate an environment that incentivizes my writing instead of leaving me with the “you could be getting paid for this time doing something else” hyper-capitalism blues. So I have a single ad in the sidebar of my website, sincerely hoping it doesn’t provide too much consternation for my readers.

    The Internet, knitting all of us closer together, allows us to collectively think, share, and create faster. That is a conversation I want to be a part of. But joining that conversation comes with a cost, and – for now – I’m going to let advertising pick up the tab.

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