It is now generally agreed that “clickbait culture” is destroying any hope of productive discourse that does not immediately disintegrate into bickering, flame-wars and grandstanding. However, the incentive structure as it stands simply does not allow anyone to stop doing it: the first media outlet to take a stand for calmness and sanity will be the first to bleed to death from lacking advertising revenue as its viewers click more provocative lines in their feeds. Despite cautions regarding structures that enable vertical transit, everything just keeps tumbling down. It doesn’t stop from keep happening.
But what if we could stop letting that happen? Adblockers, which modify a browser to not display advertisements from websites the user visits but does not explicitly whitelist, could decouple “maximizing viewership” from “maximizing revenue,” and whatever digital economy follows might require producers to create content of genuinely high value.
I don’t think it will work out so pleasantly. Here are my reasons, laid out as straightforwardly as possible:
- Adblockers are permeable: most adblockers serve the purpose of blocking obnoxious ads, not preventing civilizational collapse. They often have provisions to allow non-intrusive ads, and unethical adblockers effectively operate as a protection racket, accepting payment from advertisement agencies to not include their material in the default blacklists. Adblockers that are not complete do not remove the incentive to produce clickbait.
- Adblockers are detectable: in order to save bandwidth, most adblockers work by modifying requests to the web server so that returned pages do not include known advertisement content. Increasing numbers of websites detect this happening and lock content unless the user whitelists their site. While it’s possible to instead download the ads and not display them, this uses significant bandwidth – and more importantly, if adblock-users are indistinguishable from non-users, there’s no loss of incentive to be clickbaity from a viewer changing category.
- Anti-adblockism is already a thing: a lot of content creators are not happy with their ability to earn a living being destroyed in the hopes that something better will emerge from the rubble, and argue that using adblockers is morally wrong. A lot of people agree with them, and would be especially unhappy with the kind of adblockers that would be required to repair online discourse (see above).
- Content creators doubling down: to keep revenue up as numbers of “paying” viewers falls, even more outrageous clickbait will have to be used. This may sound impossible, but I’m quite sure it’s not. “Things can’t possibly get worse” has never been correct, and arguably the rise of adblockers is what precipitated this race-to-the-bottom to begin with.
- The replacement digital economy will also be awful: it doesn’t seem especially likely that non-ad-based revenue streams will necessarily protect against clickbait. Remember that the Daily Mail existed long before the modern internet did. If people are more willing to click on bait-links, they’ll probably be more willing to fork over a seamless microtransaction to see them; or to subscribe to their service; or whatever payment model is hoped will take the place of ads. Short of a centralized body funding content-creation on merit rather than populism, the incentive to acquire more viewers at the cost of calmness and sanity will always be there, and you can bet the libertarian brigade would be up in arms if we tried to nationalize the media – somewhat rightly so, I imagine, since it introduces different perverse incentives.
- The replacement digital economy will be less equitable: yes, clickbait is destroying the world, but it’s fair – anyone can write what they want and get paid exactly what they deserve (i.e. proportionally to viewership).
Some of these issues can be circumvented, others mitigated. And on the whole, I’m hopeful that adblocking can at least slow the decline – after all, back when all media was pay-per-view, high quality content was mostly the norm.
Oh, and everyone needs to stop using Twitter immediately – that stuff is memetic poison and “but muh coordination problem” or “but muh best social media platform” is not a good enough reason to put it anywhere close to your mind. Do not drink the radioactive acid.