Updated: October 16, 2015
Several days ago, I read an interesting story on OSNews.com, about adblocking being introduced into iOS 9, the operating system de jour on iPhone 6, and how this new default configuration is going to affect the mobile world, and on a wider scale, longer term, the world of advertisement. Not sure if they backtracked on that decision, or if this is ever going to happen, but if it does, then see below.
In turn, the story made me thinking, how the Internet is going to change if and when the big players out there decide to adjust their strategy and start changing the way content and marketing are presented to the end user. So let's take a look what we ought to expect in the future. My view on things, and you should heed it. This is going to be an extremely long and convoluted article. Not joking. Let's speculate.
The future of the Internet. Image credits: A Che, freeimages.com.
The best way to look at the future is to glance back and see what the past has to offer. Since we haven't really socially changed much in the past 30,000 years, any lesson from the last few decades ought to be quite valuable - and accurate and relevant in helping predict the next few decades.
And so, we need the TV and radio as our baseline. First, the TV. Over the years, this medium of entertainment has solidified into a tightly controlled, tightly regulated system with several big corporations dominating the waves, offering tightly governed channels full of content specifically designed to thrill and excite specific demographic groups, elicit and provoke, incense and addict, and finally make you spend more time being engaged, and I'm using the word loosely.
Once upon a time, they used to put them on their own little page. Image credits: Jurgen Parg, freeimages.com.
On top of that, at least across the US-Europe division, on the far side of the pond, you get shiny advertisement services, which happen before, after and all the while throughout aired movies and series and shows. This valuable slice of primetime is leased to the highest bidder by companies, keen on promoting their services and products. It seems to work, otherwise, there would be no point in doing it.
Apart from the neurotic overload of information, a typical viewing session consists of short bursts of content, followed by crap, followed by some more content, the quality thereof notwithstanding. When it comes to documentaries, things are even worse, considering slow narration and info recaps that are designed to squeeze as little actual data into as much air time as possible. In a nutshell, this is your subscription TV, whether satellite, cable or other.
If you're thinking, this is what Internet might become one day, let's first consider the second example, radio. Here, a similar situation persisted for a long time until the TV became the dominant media and the radio sort of faded to relative obscurity. While ads are still quite rampant, and the same tactics are used, because of the somewhat lower costs associated with the management of radio programs, and the fact it's more of a niche product now, there is a somewhat higher chance of finding valuable content.
If you're thinking, maybe this is the future of the Internet, let's talk about what the Internet did for us. On one end, it allowed you to consume adult entertainment on unprecedented level and be able to communicate with friends and strangers half way across the globe with the same ease as your next-door neighbor, or even easier. But on the other, it also introduced a completely unregulated, free-for-all, total-equality way for random, ordinary people, unassociated with the big media corporations, to offer their content to the wider audience. It had the same effect like crossbow had on knighthood in the 15th century. All of a sudden, any little pleb could kill a knight with only a couple of hours of outdoor training.
Over the course of just 20 years, billions of websites have come alive, run by individuals with no political or monetary goals, serving their own ideas and stories. The power to be just as entertaining and amusing was taken away from the old guard and given to everyone. Streaming and video only made things even more accessible.
Smart people realized there was this huge mass of people writing content, essentially for free, and they had their readership, consuming the content - again, for free. To wit, they introduced the model of passive advertisement alongside content, allowing people to sort of choose whether to focus on the article or the little boxes selling them things. And so the online advertisement world was created, and it became the flagship strategy for some of the biggest companies out there.
For he who controls content - can also control how the ads are used, and hand in hand, manage their profits. Information became a currency. And the idea of non-affiliated people doing their random stuff transformed into a global agenda.
So what we have right now is a sort of a Wild West. The Internet is largely free, accessible by everyone, to anyone, and in most cases, with just a bit of skill, patience, money, and desire to learn, you can have your own blog. There is the sort of status quo, where you consume information provided to you by giants, ergo Google and some friends, to access content, provided by everyone else, and you use the mighty search engines to digest the information easily and quickly. In turn, you pay a tithe by enjoying the hybrid content-ad model, which has become a big source of revenue for information providers.
And this is where it all becomes tricky.
We established that information = money. If you do not control the information, you don't really influence your income. You can participate, you can try to follow the guidelines from those in control of all the data, but ultimately, you are at the mercy of those at the helm of the information starship. So what happens if your business model is different?
And so, we shift focus from Google to Apple. In a way, smartphones are a really nice way of making money. The moment you realize smartphone apps are just standalone websites presented to you in a fancy way, you realize that whoever controls the app ecosystem also controls the way the information flows.
But not the information itself. That one still belongs to Google (and the rest). And the little people behind their billions of websites.
And so, for Apple to be able to fully master its domain, i.e. iPhone and anything inside, it also needs to control the content. But you cannot control the Internet. So what you can do is break the content-ad balance.
This is where ad-blocking comes into play. It shatters the situation we have today where you are free to use content any which way you want, but you also have the freedom to choose whether to see or use the ads in any way. The Internet in 2015 is still flexible enough to allow anyone to fully master their own share of visible information, even if they cannot fully control all of it.
Indeed, that one still belongs to Google, and on average, whatever you see is designed slash optimized to give you the most Google-profitable set of data. If you think about it a little more profoundly, you consume websites you find through search. But what decides the rank of presented information? Unless you click on every single link and enjoy all of the available content equally, then you are effectively limiting yourself to top searches in the search engines, be they Google, Yahoo, Bing, or DuckDuckGo, and this means that whatever the algorithms put up there first, will become your view of the world. Still, the search bosses cannot control what the people on the far end of the link are writing, but they sure can decide whether to give you that info on not, based on their strategy, and that largely means money. Profitable information is the preferred information.
But the truth is, no one really knows how Google and friends do their magic. However, seeing the trend toward mobile, the way desktop content got penalized or marginalized in the last few years, it is easy to deduce the overall business model. And you can't really get angry or blame anyone. That's how it is. Moreover, you still have the freedom to choose any search engine you want. You can ignore links, use alternative search engines, use RSS feeds and skip searches altogether. Anything. Still free to do as you please.
Ad-blocking that is integrated into a chief mobile platform may change all that. The disruption of the content-ad balance - and we still haven't argued if that one is good or bad, it is what it is - means the Internet WILL change. How? Look at the TV, look at the radio, and now, extrapolate.
If we're lucky, the power of the Internet is such that it cannot be stopped. Of course, this is not going to happen. Don't be naive. Silly you. We shall indeed have to focus on the alternative, which does not entitle you to much happiness or freedom, I'm afraid.
Ever wondered why there's so much focus on digital piracy? It's not just about the loss of revenue, which is arguably low or high or whatever. It's about control. Remember pirate TV channels, and how ruthlessly they would get cracked down? Or radio? The big guys out there control everything, and you can't get your slice of pie. You are unable to add your own content into these media. You cannot. Ever.
Piracy represents a breakdown of a tight monopoly that's been around for several good, hard decades, and it's now being projected into the world of Internet - with massive resistance from the public, who have finally been liberated from the yoke of moronity TV, constant ads that you cannot skip or block, and being able to read articles that do not stink of bias and cheap populism. Sure, 90% of the Internet is still crap, but it's less than the 100% pure feces that mainstream TV is. 10% out of billions is still a whole lot of great stuff to enjoy. For a very long time.
Think about it. A plebeian revolution. Any peasant can write a website that can be as successful as a shitty domain run by a big company with its army of developers and marketing drones. Just think of the power the Internet has given the common man, the guy with prose and wit and only 20 dollars in their pocket, and yet, they can defeat big companies, their words ring true, and their content is gold. Oh, the blasphemy!
The day the common man made it big, sort of.
And so, if you want to make money, you must control the info. That one is almost a lost cause. Google owns it. End of story. And it is also slowly, but surely misusing it and subverting it to its own needs. Just by pushing down things it considers less worthy. My name is on the same list, because I'm not trying to paddle a mobile app that counts your farts or Facebook likes. Again, that's the reality. It won't change overnight, but it might, if the collective mind gets fed up with bullshit.
But the content is still in the hands of ordinary people. Mostly, most of it. And now, finally, money comes into play. Ordinary people are writing content. For free. No one is paying. Wait. Google is paying them. Ad companies, whose ads are displayed on these sites, are paying a percentage of their income, as a result of these sites being there, peddling their content, and having their users react to and interact with the ads. Boom. The online money model!
So the info is in the hands of the middle class, and they are even getting paid for it. Golly! And the people are using the money to pay for the running costs of managing websites and having them hosted somewhere. The lucky ones are actually making a handsome profit, and then we get into a whole different universe of how profit is subverting content. The same way media companies garner ratings and views by offering bad and shocking news, the sites generate traffic by offering cheap controversy and drama.
We are seeing a continuous degradation and dilution of content, more paid or sponsored articles that are veiled advertisements or endorsements of dubious products and crap, and the general average of content is leaning toward the common denominator, which happens to be a thoroughly inbred moron that you may call the average Internet user.
Money ... Yes, ordinary folks are making money. From ads. Some people like it, some don't, but we still have a rough, delicate status quo. But now, no more ads, and the situation is changing. Since we're talking mobile, the apps are being affected. Well, let's call them standalone mobile websites, and it all makes sense again. Indeed. People are going to be losing revenue, and this means that those who can no longer afford to make content for free will gradually disappear.
Of course, if and ever your one and only goal was to get rich by writing an app or peddling cheap content, then you don't really deserve to survive. Creating content, creating art is all about self-fulfillment and helping others. If you're in for a quick exit, then you don't belong online. You should not. You are the poison that's killing the Web. That's the sad reality of it. Feel free to be offended, but if the taint of greed is your chief motivation, then your content will reflect it. And when there's greed, there's profit, and that means bias, and that means skewed information. Basically lies, deception, untrustworthy information. Crap.
However, not everyone is there to milk Mother Internet off its digital teat. Some people genuinely are dependent on the income they generate from ads to be able to sustain their hobbies, and if that trickle goes away, their content goes away. And surely, like any big purging, the way Apple is supposedly doing it, the small fish shall vanish. Survival of the fittest.
Who is going to survive? The big guns, of course. Those with deep pockets and long-term stamina to weather changes and emerge with new business ideas and policies that align with the new strategy. Forget information, it's going to change to match the new format. Untrustworthy by design, to begin with, but then, how much of the info you see on the Internet can you really trust? All of it. If it's online, it's must be true. Right?
Back to Apple, if you are able to follow my uber-convoluted genius train of thoughts. Apple cuts ads, sites go away. Information, content, that's Google and friends. A change in balance. But what do we get instead? What fills the vacuum?
Before we discuss the future in earnest, let's discuss the business around ads. Many Internet users are opposed to ads, because they are a remnant of the old guard and decades of TV oppression, they are essentially useless, they are intrusive, and they are overall crap. Others don't mind them, and some actually use them, which is why the model is still very much alive.
So if you ask people opposed to ads, they ought to go away. Others may tell you they are a necessary evil that maintains the current balance and helps the Internet and its millions of tiny content creators survive in the shadow of the giants. Others yet may argue they are necessary, but this is an ideological argument that follows the earlier US-Europe divide.
Then, to make things worse, some people are trying to make money by playing both camps, and that's called acceptable ads. Which means someone is using their judgment, and it's based on profit and therefore useless, to decide what should or should not meet the filtering criteria.
Therefore, ads must exist in their full form - yes, they should be created in an elegant manner, and there's tons of improvement to be done - or not at all. In between does not cut it. So, we now need to discuss the world based on these two scenarios. The second one is, based on what I've read, being embraced, with exceptions of course, by Apple on its mobile platform.
This is where our earlier worst case scenario comes into place.
Ads are gone. Millions of websites are gone. You are left with big guys, and the big guys have a known template for success. Highly controlled content designed to maximize profit. And much like TV, there's no separation between ads and content anymore. The same way you cannot - or could not - skip ads in TV shows or movies, the new model does not permit any flexibility in your desire not to enjoy crap. But you must endure it. Closed systems do not allow input from the common man.
Twenty years from now, there are no ads, but your content is essentially one big innuendo, trying to guide you toward doing things that will make the publisher most money. True for games, true for consumer product reviews, true for anything. Manipulate the content, and you rule the game. If you can't control the Internet ...
No problem. Cut it off. Ads are gone, sites are dead, big guys left. Bingo.
Yes, me too. They represent that suit-and-tie red-cheeked glassy-eyed dodgy door-to-door salesmen mentality of the 50s capitalism, where innovation takes a humble third place after greed and maximized profits. Everything that you want to despise and more. I am also a hypocrite, because I have them on my site. Why? Managing server costs, hardware used for and in the reviews, and whatnot. The same as thousands of other tech bloggers.
However, at the same time, the ads do allow ordinary people to create content, see above. Some will do it no matter what, see above. But some genuinely need money to sustain their website work. A lucky few don't. Of course, the cruel Internet community is not forthcoming with its donations and help. Don't bet your luck there. So perhaps the compromise would be to make better ads. But is there a different way to make it all happen?
Support your sites, or bear the consequences. Image credits: Istvan Markus, freeimages.com.
Well, technically, non-profit organizations are an answer to that. If you had governments sponsor and foster innovation and creativity to include free website hosting for everyone, then technically, we could have an ad-free world. That would be lovely. But it's not going to happen, and that's why we need the compromise.
Which means there should be an Internet standard. Not one according to Google. Not one according to whoever feels like bending rules to their own profit. The same way the Internet has its protocols, the same way net neutrality exists - and is being challenged all the time by people who want the TV model for your pr0n - there must be an HTML standard for ads. In other words, limit what non-site content can do and how it may be displayed. But that can be easily worked around. A legal requirement, then? Not gonna happen.
I don't have all the answers what the HTML ad protocol should be, but there should be one, and all other company-designed and sponsored stuff should be put to a swift and merciless death. But if media codecs are a lesson, as long as big money rules the tubes, we won't be seeing any altruistic protocols that prevent big companies from trying to manipulate content. The price of having a free Internet.
So you do need to choose a lesser evil. Do you want the TV model? Or can you live with the digital diarrhea that's called ads? If so, are you willing to do anything to help the little guy survive in the big game? Probably not, right. Still, worth thinking about it, even for one second.
Radio. Going back to our best case scenario, there will always be niche market for good content. Creativity and innovation cannot really be stopped. Even in the dark ages and medieval times, people found ways to carry on, despite oppression. Radio has survived, and it's a viable entertainment platform, and good content will remain around, even though it may become more difficult to find and access. Even now, high quality content is far and few in between, and rarer by the day. Ask yourselves, how many really good and interesting sites do you really read? A dozen? Out of billions.
Well, in a way, you can be thankful for what Apple is doing - and I'm saying this as a shareholder who's considering dumping his load back to the sea. I don't consume any mainstream media, any cable, anything of that kind. Pure and utter garbage. No doubts. No seconds thoughts. I know there's nothing worthy for me to even begin considering any of that. Plus I save loads of money, and instead, I use it to buy content that I like, and here, we should be thankful of the explosion of online media and streaming, as it's made so much of that closely guarded content available.
Here, you should choose carefully. Go with companies that do not use DRM. Don't buy from those who would stream encrypted content. Don't let them control you. Vote with your money. Which is why I'm never going to put my credit card details on my iPhone. Very simple. Before you say anything, I did not buy the device, it's been given for free, and I'm using it to see what this world has to offer, so I can choose not to use it. Get it?
So Apple may narrow down its ecosystem. Awesome. The more isolated mainstream stuff becomes the better. We should be all grateful for that. I am looking forward to the day where my interaction with the collective moronity of this day is limited to a login page that forces me to use an integrated platform that belongs to a mobile service by one of the big guys. Today, you can still stumble upon random crap everywhere. If it all goes behind one big closed wall. Bloody awesome.
Isolation is salvation. Image credits: Christine Ma, freeimages.com.
Of course, all of this is exaggeration. In a way, in the short run, what Apple is doing isn't that bad. They are cleaning up, but the collateral damage will hurt more than it will help. High quality content will become less available. I sure won't shed tears for anyone who's stepped into the game purely for money. In the longer run, it will become more and more difficult to find untainted information, but then, we will need to adapt. The simplest solution is to block everything you no longer trust. And if Apple assists in that, great. Once websites, I mean "apps" start peddling their guided content in a way that is meant to compensate for revenue lost from blocked ads, then you will know when to stop using those apps and go elsewhere.
Don't expect these apps to suddenly focus on high-quality content. Won't happen. If they wanted high-quality content, they'd have done it in the first place. Ergo, you should be thankful. Apple is helping you having to suffer less stupidity. Great. Morons will enjoy shit in their padded cells, and you will look from the sidelines, all high and mighty and with your own tiny but classy corner of the Web. Don't ask for more. It's good enough.
Alas, not everyone will have the skill to smell crap and dodge it. Which is why the future won't be really bright. It will be well guided, that's for sure. You should also focus on cherishing these first decades of the Internet, because the abundance and naivety will never come back. Look at the civil aviation. The transcontinental first class, or even economy flights, have not become more luxurious than they used to be. Cheaper, yes, but better, hell no. The same way here, the more consumer oriented the Internet becomes, the more it will be about margins, profits, minimizing quality and maximizing revenue, pushing it to the very limit of corporate greed.
What you can do, as a reader, is give love to your favorite sites. Forget about ads. They are irrelevant. If you really support your authors and creators, they will ditch the ads themselves. And if you're creating content, ask yourselves, why. Money? GTFO. Passion? Then, whatever Apple and Google and whoever else is doing doesn't really matter. You are already invincible.