Depending on where you stand, the increasing ability of Web users to block advertisements either means the end of the free Internet or a new era of personalized browsing.
For those of us who grew up as the Web was just taking off, the possibility of blocking ads represents yet another paradigm shift in the relationship between content providers and users. In the 1990s, browsing the Web included the inevitable fight with pop-ups, flashing banners and at least 20 loud (yes, some had sounds!) announcements that you were the 1,000th visitor.
It was all pretty exhausting. Eventually, those who made Web browsers provided us with pop-up blockers and users got the power to browse more freely. Soon after, we received the ability not only to read content but to modify it and even create it ourselves. Suddenly, we moved from being passive readers of websites (anyone else remember GeoCities?) to people who could comment on news articles and tell the world what we had for lunch. It is at this point that the Web became a platform for the creation of communities. We can now virtually meet fellow knitting enthusiasts or rabbit keepers or translators from almost anywhere in the world. From this perspective, blocking ads is simply part of a bigger process.
Whereas earlier developments of the Web gave users the power to invite people into virtual communities, blocking advertisements gives us the power to keep something out. Where once there was no way to guarantee that a visit to a site for your favorite sports team would not be overtaken by a mass of incessant and often indecent commercials, now users have the power to take control over what they see.
In a community model, content creators can be expected to make sure that only relevant ads appear.
There is something Biblical in taking control over what we allow ourselves to dwell on. To the extent that ad blocking helps us to filter what we see, it is a vital part of browsing the Web. But there is a price to be paid. Whenever we exclude someone from our community, we deprive ourselves of the gifts God might want to give us through them. When it comes to blocking advertisements, it is the independent content creators who stand to lose the most. I recently came across a post from blogger and crafter Jen Yates in which she points out that her income from advertising has dropped 70 percent since 2009, despite a marked rise in the number of visitors over the same period. This is before the projected massive rise in ad blocking.
The truth is that most of the quirky, niche content we expect to find online is supported in some way by advertising. Since those who work deserve their pay, a deal needs to be struck so small independent creators can still survive.
Once again, community is the key. In a community model, content creators can be expected to make sure that only advertisements that are relevant and acceptable to their community appear, while also becoming more creative in finding ways to generate income. Readers, on the other hand, will need to accept that seeing the odd ad for a product that is related to their interests is a small price to pay for the privilege of being able to visit websites, including those where we can discuss the theological aspects of baseball and tightrope walking in the same place.