This system sucks
April 17, 2013 10:23 AM   Subscribe

So now it turns out I need around 1,500 readers to get that $5 for my hypothetical site. Say I want to pay myself $500 for the month. It’s not a ton of money. I need 150,000 page views. That jumped right up there, didn’t it? Now look at sites that employ a number of highly skilled, professional writers that are full time and making a livable wage. You’re suddenly looking at millions and millions of page views required to keep everything afloat, much less expand.
Ad-blockers, the games press, and why sexy cosplay galleries lead to better reporting.
posted by griphus (119 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
(Not sure if this needs to be mentioned, but to the best of my knowledge, the PA Report is editorially independent from Penny Arcade proper.)
posted by griphus at 10:38 AM on April 17, 2013


There's a reason why HuffPo, despite being one of the best journalism sites (IMO) on the web, appears from the outside to largely consist of "Renee Descartes nip-slip baby scandal!"

As a webmaster myself, the reality is that it's a buyer's market for advertising. When I want to buy ads to promote my site, I can easily get large amounts of market penetration (although at least up til now it's not been highly effective). But putting AdSense on my forum will just annoy my users and make minimal money, so I've sidelined it for now.
posted by LukeLockhart at 10:44 AM on April 17, 2013


Maybe, and I say this sincerely, there simply isn't a business model for paid enthusiast media that makes sense.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:47 AM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


I still believe that micro payments can solve some of these issues. Problem is, no one has managed to implement a solution that affordable enough for all parties (content providers, consumers, payment providers), that's dead simple to use and safe. Why isn't there a solution that works across all devices where a single click transfers a predefined amount of cash to support the publication, author or article?

Here's another idea: instead of deciding up-front what to write about and spending days, weeks or months doing the necessary work, create a small market place where your consumers can decide what piece of work to fund.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:47 AM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


You get $5 for 1000 views, but half of the people visiting use ad-blocking software, so you need 1500 visitors to get that $5? I guess they don't pay for fact-checking.
posted by jeather at 10:54 AM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh, and there's long historical precedent for this sort of set-up. Black Mask magazine, which printed pulp crime stories, was founded by H.L. Mencken to support his literary magazine The Smart Set.
posted by griphus at 10:55 AM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


And then there's "People who read parenting blogs don’t often block ads, and are probably barely aware it’s a thing they can do."

Seriously?
posted by jeather at 10:56 AM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Google sometimes pays me 0 cents on a click. Clearly I either need to scale way up or people need to click harder.
posted by srboisvert at 10:56 AM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


Maybe, and I say this sincerely, there simply isn't a business model for paid enthusiast media that makes sense.

Yep. The smaller your market, the more the readers view the relationship as a conversation. And most people don't really like the idea of conversations being monetized, like you are paying someone to talk to you.

Paying for something other than the content is a good way around this. Hats and tshirts and prints of webcomics or collections of articles on paper or something.
posted by DU at 10:58 AM on April 17, 2013


Why isn't there a solution that works across all devices where a single click transfers a predefined amount of cash to support the publication, author or article?

That's pretty much the problem Flattr is trying to solve, although last I heard Twitter wasn't going to let them use Twitter favorites.
posted by Copronymus at 10:58 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Renee Descartes nip-slip baby scandal!"

Would click, would not feel ashamed
posted by Copronymus at 10:59 AM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


The entire back sections of old newspapers like The Village Voice and The Phoenix were filled with sensational (to put it nicely) ads. The local paper is filled with inserts that go straight into the trash. Comic strip wars occurred in the old newspapers. And tabloids? "Headless Body Found In Topless Bar". It's always been a brutal business.
posted by R. Mutt at 11:07 AM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


nsfwcorp
posted by jcruelty at 11:08 AM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


As an undergraduate journalism major, I gotta say, nothing makes me feel more conflicted about my educational and career goals than reading a well-written article that describes the difficulty nowadays of getting paid for good writing.
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 11:09 AM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


And let's not forget that time in the late 90s when the online advertising market crashed (or was it 2000? It got eclipsed by the Worldcom Enron crash), sending hundreds or thousands of ad-sponsored services into the red and out of business right at the peak of the dotcom boom. Sure, they were nice, unlimited 5CPM contracts, but the ad company was budgeting something like $50 for your payout, not the $12,000 in traffic we ended up sending their way. So everyone ended up getting checks for fractions of a penny on the dollar, and I've blocked ads guilt free ever since.
posted by ceribus peribus at 11:26 AM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


@Ceribus - I miss Geocities!!! (not really...)
posted by LukeLockhart at 11:33 AM on April 17, 2013


I still believe that micro payments can solve some of these issues.

I still believe that engineering distributed systems can solve some of these issues. Rather than finding ways to squeeze ever tinier income streams out of groups of people who basically just want to talk to each other about their common interests, why don't we build ways that those people can share the computing power and storage space they already have to facilitate their own conversations, without having to pay anyone else for the privilege?

Monetizing the conversation is just another failure mode.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:34 AM on April 17, 2013 [15 favorites]


The thing is, by and large this wasn't really a surprise. In the long-long ago of a few years back when I was still trying to make money drawing editorial cartoons, there were constant print-guys-vs-web-guys arguments about each other's respective models. (Effectively, paying for the content vs. getting the content for free and paying for merchandise and watching ads.) At the time, the web guys were winning by default: print was dying, print guys were losing their jobs, print guys were too old or too stubborn to adapt, the model had to change. At the time, there were, unfortunately, a LOT of web guys who didn't seem to grasp that "the model is going to change and if you can't adapt, you, too, are screwed" applied to them as well. And here we are, when a model of web ads and t-shirt sales is starting to falter because everyone has ad blockers and no one has disposable income to wear a $25 picture of a cartoon animal saying a pun in a word balloon.

They're right. The system sucks. It's based on people feeling comfortable with spending money they can easily not. That's... yeah, just say that out loud and it's a hard sell. I don't know what the answer really is beyond the usual: that the economy sucks all around and it needs to improve so everyone has more money to spend on stuff like this.

What's even more brutal is that we already know what the next life-preserver here is: everyone thinking that this will all be solved with a really successful Kickstarter campaign. Because, you know, like print and web merchandising, this too is a model with no drawbacks that will work forever.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 11:39 AM on April 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


The future of the web is Page 3 girls!
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:53 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why isn't there a solution that ... transfers a predefined amount of cash to support the publication, author or article?

Question's been around a long time (e.g. Ted Nelson, 70s). First problem is security: let's suppose a Bitcoin model (still not foolproof security-wise) tied to the dollar. $500 a month at a dime per donation, needs 5000 views. With so many views already captured by big-name sites, keeping that kind of audience coming back may require more time than one person can find.
posted by Twang at 12:08 PM on April 17, 2013


I think the credit card system is a big part of what makes virtual tip jars and micropayments difficult. I'd love to have a lump of e-money that I could just throw at the people online that I love, but I don't want to have to remember three passwords, re-enter my information, oh you already have an account, $2 surcharge on your $1 donation, to do so.
posted by rebent at 12:14 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


A more general article from n+1 looks at the same thing:


In retrospect, it’s apparent that the commercial liability of newspapers and national magazines was the same as their cultural strength: they addressed issues of general interest in an all-purpose public sphere. But to advertisers this civics-class “everybody” was a consumer “nobody”: it meant the press didn’t know who its audience was, or what they could afford. To pack a reporter off to Congo or Pakistan was to spend a lot of money catering to a phantom demographic. When this was the best that advertisers could do, it’s what they did: if Macy’s was holding a sale, it advertised it in the front section of the paper between news of the defense of Kinshasa and the latest scandal in Congress, figuring that “everybody” saw it, one way or another. If Ford had a new truck to market, off it went in search of football games to interrupt. But how much more reasonable and efficient—for everyone, really—to advertise clothing sales to people who want clothing, and Ford trucks not to sports fans, but to people in the market for a truck. Before, the advertisers had to guess; now, with all the information we provide with keyword searches, on social networks, and in emails, advertising can be more precise. On top of that, the “content” of social networks, email, search engines, blogs—it somehow magically produces itself, that is to say the users produce it, that is to say it’s free. The extension of advertising to the domain of private chatter undermines the competitiveness of anything that costs more than private chatter to produce. Marx blamed the below-subsistence wages of the proletariat on the reserve army of labor; the below-subsistence revenues of the Times can be blamed on the reserve army of the social networks.

.......

With so many new surfaces available to ads, newspapers will never make close to what they formerly earned, no matter how often we reload the Times website. As the space open to advertising continually expands, the value of each individual ad must correspondingly decline. Of course, ad revenue could go up if companies started increasing ad budgets, but over the past ninety years, through the rise of TV, radio, and the internet, total advertising spending has remained almost constant at between 2 and 3 percent of GDP. Ads themselves are premised on the infiniteness and malleability of human desire; ad budgets, on the other hand, recognize the relatively fixed and inelastic nature of disposable incomes.

It’s at this intersection of ever expanding advertising, stagnant median income, and constant ad budgets that journalism will have to live.


One of the things the article muses on is that advertising in some ways was a progressive tax. Good intelligent reporting was paid for by Rolex ads, but everyone got the product. Advertising has gotten much better targeted, and also has dozens of more places to be shown. And the best sites for advertising don't even create their own content. Probably the best place for Rolex to put advertising is where people are searching for Rolexes. Prices falling is inevitable.
posted by zabuni at 12:15 PM on April 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


...why don't we build ways that those people can share the computing power and storage space they already have to facilitate their own conversations, without having to pay anyone else for the privilege?

Didn't we once call that Usenet? Fondly as I remember the days before long September, it had some failure modes of its own.
posted by CHoldredge at 12:17 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


The real problem with Usenet or a similar model is the same problem that Reddit has - lack of centralized moderation that's able to declare things like transphobia or misogyny off limits. The Internet has conventionally been hostile to anyone who isn't a straight, white, cisgender man, and no forum that doesn't have strong moderation, a restricted user base, or both, can really manage that. That's why the "distributed" model isn't going to work - there needs to be an authority who can say what kinds of talk are unacceptable and which aren't.
posted by LukeLockhart at 12:24 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


The most interesting thing for me was that it only takes an absolutely tiny amount of donations, i.e. the kickstarter model, to beat ad funding. It goes to show the paywall model - or the old newspaper model - where a few thousand or a few 10's of thousand regular customers can fund an entire suite of journalists, and all the distribution costs much better than millions of ad-views.

It makes me think that wikipedia style funding drives once a year may become a lot more common, or even 'subscribe to comment' annual payments.

Hmm. Imagine youtube comments using a metafilter style system, with mods paid for out of it, and how much that would improve that hive of scum and villany...

I can think of a few sites I'd quite happily donate money to to keep going. I use an ad blocker, not least because ad-banner vendors are a moderately common vector for infection via flash et al - and of course, the privacy invasion of it all.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:26 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]




I can think of a few sites I'd quite happily donate money to to keep going. I use an ad blocker, not least because ad-banner vendors are a moderately common vector for infection via flash et al - and of course, the privacy invasion of it all.

Speaking of which, John Walker also links here in his article.
posted by zabuni at 12:29 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's something missing in this conversation. I tried for a long time to avoid adblockers, but ads on the internet have gotten out of control. Hover-overs and videos and really skeezy pictures and interstitial ads and ads that try to look like non ad content in the middle of your article (or worse, ads that look like the next page arrow) and more ads than content by far more ads than content and javascript that makes every other word in the article an ad and more ads and retargeting ads or whatever they are called and jesus fucking christ I was done with it.

You want me to view ads on the internet? Then stop having otherwise legit sites filled with totally crap ads that make viewing content a constant hostile experience. Because if you feel so little respect for your readers, I feel little respect for you.
posted by aspo at 12:32 PM on April 17, 2013 [20 favorites]


Here and elsewhere, I'd gladly pay $5 to cover the cost of blocking ads for my next thousand visits.
posted by doreur at 12:33 PM on April 17, 2013


because everyone has ad blockers and no one has disposable income to wear a $25 picture of a cartoon animal saying a pun in a word balloon.

If your readers don't have any money to spend, advertising won't be so profitable either once the advertisers realize this.

Possible exceptions include: job sites, make-money-working-from-home scams, payroll advance shit, and non-commercial stuff like political and religious ads or PSAs.
posted by aubilenon at 12:44 PM on April 17, 2013


You want me to view ads on the internet? Then stop having otherwise legit sites filled with totally crap ads that make viewing content a constant hostile experience. Because if you feel so little respect for your readers, I feel little respect for you.

Yes, but this is the very nature of the problem. People block annoying ads (or any ads), so advertisers get more annoying, so more people block ads. This is the ouroboros at the heart of the problem.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:48 PM on April 17, 2013


No single business model is right for all content or content consumers. Not Kickstarter, etc.

But lots of people pay for subscription things like Spotify, Netflix, whatever. Seems like there's room for a model like "Here's my monthly budget of $20 or so, use it so I never feel a paywall or article meter, and maybe give me access to bonus content too."

So, in ArkhanJG's model, but where you're not bugged to so much as log in but quietly able to comment/discuss because you're funded, and your discussion improves because of that funding. (Maybe in a way you can see - metrics on your funding, whatever.)
posted by abulafa at 12:53 PM on April 17, 2013


Foci for Analysis has a great point about micro-payments.

Pointing out that the ads (and tracking info) I'm blocking are worth less than half a cent to a content provider seems like a strange way to convince me not to block ads. But, it does suggest an obvious alternative: there are very few things I read that I wouldn't happily pay several pennies for if they were offered without advertising. The problem is that there are thousands of online authors whose work is worth pennies to me, and only a few whose work is worth tens of dollars. Making an individual donation of less than tens of dollars ends up costing me more time than money, and I won't bother to do it.

Now, if I could set up a deal with a coalition of online advertizing companies and offer to pay them slightly more than market rate for each ad they *would* have shown me, along with a strong privacy guarantee, I'd be glad to do it. Even if it were just a single large advertizing company that savvy sites could choose to go with, that'd be a fine start. Someone like Google might have the power and infrastructure to actually do such a thing pretty easily, though it's hard to imagine they would.

Of course, there's one medium which has had a lot of the same characteristics as online journalism since the beginning: radio. And, there are a few different models that, while imperfect, have done a reasonably good job of allowing journalists to do interesting work while giving their content away for free. The only problem with applying some version of the public-radio subscription model to internet journalism is that there are so many independent operators that the transaction costs become unwieldy. So, you either have to pay large curators, or you have to find a way to make the transactions a whole lot easier.

Something BBC-like could be interesting, if it were run well. But, how to run such a thing well is complicated. Videogame journalism is worth absolutely nothing to me. . . but, I recognize people value it, and it ought to be supported at some level. Fortunately, unlike radio, the one thing we have a tonne of is detailed viewer statistics, which I'm sure demonstrate that video game journalism is far more popular than anything I care about. The hard part is figuring out what things are so unique or interesting they ought to be funded despite having few viewers, assuming we accept that such things exist. That strikes me as something government cultural foundations actually do reasonably well. But, expanding the reach of such institutions may be a lot harder than creating working micro-payments.
posted by eotvos at 12:54 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


In order to make this long comment less of a thread logjam, I have used the abbr tag to hide digressions. In Firefox this shows up as a light underlining, but it doesn't appear in Chrome. In both browsers, if you hover the cursor over the text it'll show up as a tooltip. I've not tested this on mobile platforms, though. Just letting you know.

People block ads because ads have gotten increasingly obnoxious.

In a market exchange, the power is either with the customer or the provider. It's usually with the customer, which is part of why the general media is so fractionalized. When customers, in the aggregate, have really great power then it's best not to piss them off. But the history of online advertising has been a succession of ways of pissing off the customer more and more: animated banners, Flash banners, search result salting, pop-up ads, pop-under ads, tracking cookies, SEO, ads masquerading as content, distracting backgrounds, page reskinnings, and obnoxious shaking floating HTML ELEMENTS THAT INTERPOSE THEMSELVES DIRECTLY OVER THE CONTENT WE CAME TO THE SITE TO SEE RARR!!!! Ahem.

This isn't Kotaku's fault, it's just how web advertising has evolved. Like all economic systems it's a power struggle, in this case between advertisers and content providers. Whenever advertising begins to be thought of as less valuable, which is often because ultimately this is just a collection of pixels on the screen, the advertisers are quick to jump at it as an excuse to lower rates, rates that are slow to improve because the force that increases them is competition between advertisers, not anything direct between the advertiser and the content provider.

But the real power here is in the hands of the customer, the reader. This is as it should be; if they had no power to ultimately salvage the situation through ad blockers the web would be less useful today, because we'd all be pissed off at aggressively monetizing websites. Of course eventually that would collapse, some company would come up with the Google-like observation that the system has gotten so bad that there's immediate, individual value in not being evil, customers would flock to them at the expense of the rest of the industry, which would have to change to suit or perish, and the situation would reset -- only to slowly get worse again, over time, until possibly another such event happens later.

But anyway. The situation might be slowly getting better on its own. Adblock Plus, by default, doesn't block all ads, just the ones that are deemed less obnoxious. The important thing is the user is ultimately in control over it. I use Adblock Plus myself, but I don't mind seeing some ads, and if I admire a site (not often) I might even go in and make sure their ads aren't being blocked. But the FIRST time a dancing floating dialog box floats over the page, for ANY reason, ad or not, and that sucker's getting the full blocking treatment. Like, say, pestering him to create a Kinja account. DON'T PISS OFF THE READER.

By the way, this is the reason Kotaku published this article in the first place. It's an appeal to readers to stop blocking ads. If a few readers stop blocking Kotaku's ads, then the economics improve slightly, and Kotaku makes more revenue. There's nothing moral or just about it, from the perspective of the market; it's all pennies. The article was written in order to attempt to improve the view-to-income ratio, that is all. Some readers probably will stop blocking, not a lot, but maybe enough. If their ads are obnoxious, though, that won't last long.
posted by JHarris at 12:57 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


Just a few week ago I installed an ad blocker for the first time. To all the sites I usually visit that are now deprived of my ad revenue: Blame Google. The thing that in the end pushed me over the edge was the ever-increasing number of 30-second video ads on Youtube.

(And I'm far too lazy to learn how to willingly disable blocking for any non-youtube sites. It's either all or nothing.)
posted by ymgve at 1:00 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


No, people ignore ads, so advertisers get more annoying.
posted by aspo at 1:00 PM on April 17, 2013


I think he makes a very good point with the Kickstarter comparison. I pay over a hundred bucks a year for a newspaper that I'm reading less and less as time goes on. Just half that amount distributed to ten of my favorite sites would probably be a better investment, on a usage per dollar basis.

But I haven't donated. (To most of them.) One reason why not is I'm used to thinking of Internet content as free, magically paid for through the power of advertising, and another reason is I don't know if it'll do any good. Will thousands of other people also donate to the same sites? If I knew that my donation was one of many, it would feel more... useful, like a necessary cost and not a band-aid that's covering a dying website's bleeding wound.

(Come to think of it, I have donated to two of my three favorite sites. Though with Metafilter it was only a one time deal.)
posted by Kevin Street at 1:00 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


(or what jharris said)
posted by aspo at 1:03 PM on April 17, 2013


The thing that in the end pushed me over the edge was the ever-increasing number of 30-second video ads on Youtube.

I think Google also rips off the advertisers on youtube by the way their pop ads move when you mouse over the video causing what is essentially click fraud because users trying to close the ad end up accidentally clicking on it when it shifts up to accommodate the popup video play controls.
posted by srboisvert at 1:12 PM on April 17, 2013


Traditionally, the very best print magazines like Granta and the New Yorker have barely been profitable, right? I think a lot of publications have relied on a benefactor of some kind (the Guardian has its trust) to remain in business, and there are not a lot of writers who earn a steady income from writing alone - they have to teach at a university.

I think the New York Times has figured out a way to make the online model work, but, speaking as a former wannabe writer, at the end of the day there is no barrier to entry for writers. There are a lot of them.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:13 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think maybe the solution is educational and not technological. A large enough fraction of Internet users have to get used to the idea that they need to support their favorite content-generating sites. (Or aggregators.) Then, like PBS and Wikipedia, they need to support those sites during pledge drives or kickstarters or some other regular funding scheme. If we don't do this, then the best content on the net might be go away, to be replaced by Huffington Post or Buzzfeed style clickbait. One good article for every hundred top ten lists, or whatever the necessary percentage turns out to be.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:21 PM on April 17, 2013


Just half that amount distributed to ten of my favorite sites would probably be a better investment, on a usage per dollar basis.

That's interesting, Kevin Street. I'd bet a lot of people feel the same way.

Rebent captures the problem, from the reader's POV:
I think the credit card system is a big part of what makes virtual tip jars and micropayments difficult. I'd love to have a lump of e-money that I could just throw at the people online that I love, but I don't want to have to remember three passwords, re-enter my information, oh you already have an account, $2 surcharge on your $1 donation, to do so.
That's also a problem from the publication's POV, too.

Flattr, mentioned above, sort of solves this, but I think it's too cumbersome, awarding payment based on your clicks. Why click or like or whatever content you want to pay for? Why not just allow users to subscribe from the pot of dough they've set aside? Worse, it doesn't really offer anything to readers to encourage them to join. You have to already be willing to pay for content to sign up and fund your account. Just drop all that "Social Micropayment" stuff and focus on being more of a "Subscription Aggregation" system.

Call it "Subscribr".

It can solve a bunch of problems for publishers (credit cards, membership databases, etc). But it would still need something on the reader side to attract membership.
posted by notyou at 1:22 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hmm.

Whoever builds the RSS reader that replaces GReader should tack Subscribr onto it. There's your value to the reader and how you get paid.
posted by notyou at 1:25 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I know folks at Tinypass which sounds a lot like what you want "Subscribr" to be...
posted by abulafa at 1:28 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]




I wonder if it makes a difference financially that Rock Paper Shotgun is a British site. Not really sure how their health system works but it looks like a mix of public and private insurance, and is probably cheaper than America's totally privatized system. So (maybe) they don't have to provide the same kind of benefits to their employees, and have a lower operating cost.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:48 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Dear Penny Arcade -

It's not ad blockers -- or your readers -- that suck. It's your business model, which is predicated upon spamming the people you want to promote and participate in your site.

(You do know they can participate, right?)

I seem to remember a large online community I was the business manager of called LiveJournal, which did surprisingly well without ads for years, with numerous hired staff. We also paid $20k+ a month on servers, colocation, etc... all through memberships that people *really didn't have to buy* in order to appreciate and use our largely non-hobbled site!

In fact, I advised the owner, Brad, to never adopt ads, because it strongly impacted site growth, which led to a reliable, profitable percentage of those new users paying to use our site. Indeed, adding ads was seen as a betrayal of the promises we made to our members. (It's one of the fundamental differences we had that led to our falling out.)

Unfortunately, Brad sold LJ to SixApart, knowing that ads were part of the deal... and now regrets the fact that it led to an adcentric business model... not to mentioned contributed greatly to LJ's decline.

The simple fact is, relying on ad money alone is a pretty poor way to run a website. LiveJournal not only grew rapidly in total users greatly in the heart of the dotcom crash... we grew in profitability too. We simply would've died if we relied on banner ads to fund our site, because when the dotcom bubble burst, ad prices crashed, bigtime. Nobody wanted to buy them.

And that's still a fundamental problem with online ads. They are a nearly infinite resource, that's fundamentally worth what people are willing to pay for them... which is invariably either far too much, or hardly anything.

Let's face it... most online advertising is about as successful as giving away free burgers via GroupOn. You pay $$$ to bring 'em in, someone else pockets pretty much all the profits... and you're left hoping that the visitors you attracted will return, because what you have to offer is better than what others have to offer. What keeps online advertising going is big companies, working in traditional ways, with a set advertising budget... usually with a percentage of that targeted towards online advertising. (A.K.A. Uncreative, unoriginal suckers... albeit ones that few of us have major qualms about paying the bills.)

If online advertising was so reliably profitable, everyone would be doing it... and if everyone did it, it wouldn't be profitable. Because ultimately, what you are trying to buy is attention, and that's a limited commodity.

But there's a lot of ad space to sell online. Boy, is there a lot of space! (Show me a single ad-supported website that refuses to sell additional space, because all of theirs is full...)

So, when you go to an ad-driven website, what they are telling you, essentially, is that they want to reward your extremely valuable attention to their product... by spamming you. And that they believe that their product is so valuable that it deserves to be funded in a pretty fly-by-night way, because they cannot trust you to actually support their business.

The thing is, if you run a website, there are are a lot of alternatives out there on how you can fund your site. There's a world of things you can sell... from T-shirts, to custom tea blends, to Penny Arcade-branded credit cards! You can order these products from anywhere, at any price ($5 quality T-shirts still exist in many parts of the globe...) and you can even find good businesses willing to drop-ship these special things to your customers, without eating all the profits. And when you have a site which mentions items for sale -- such as music, videos, books, etc. -- all the time, you can set up referral links making it easy for your readers to actually find out more about -- and possibly buy -- those items, and pocket a percentage of the sales, when they happen.

And that doesn't even touch upon all the value that your own readers and fans can create when it comes to community-driven content, if you just empower them to do so. If you want to be floored as a website owner with a small, dedicated user base... tell them your business' problems, and ask them for ideas on how to solve them. You will be surprised with the results, I suspect... if you do, in fact, have a dedicated user base. If not, well... you'll probably determine that what you are offering isn't as *wow* as you thought it was, which is valuable in itself.

*WOW* websites deliver things of value to their users... and generally don't demand much in return. You can ask your customers to stomach your ads, but not without reducing your website's wow factor. In fact, I would argue that you are asking them to do the wrong thing, for hopefully the right reason.

The fact is, when they use ad blockers, they are helping to improve the functionality and stability of the internet *and* improve upon website's business models. Ad blockers were created for a good reason, and I wouldn't want to imagine what the internet would be like without them.

Really... wouldn't it have been more effective to talk to your users first, rather than trying to guilt them into a world of spam? Is this *really* how you want to evangelize your website?

No, Penny Arcade. The problem is most certainly your business model. It's ugly. It's potentially unstable -- both for people's computers and for your business. It's often somewhat off-target and out of control. Sometimes, it's downright offensive. And it's even a potential way to possibly spread viruses and malware.

Are you sure you've really thought this one through?!
posted by markkraft at 2:01 PM on April 17, 2013 [35 favorites]


Given that Penny Arcade has a pretty damn robust relationship with their readers and has been partially ad-supported for more than a decade (and they do a good business selling shirts and books and whatnot too), I think it's entirely possible that they did think this through.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:04 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Call it "Subscribr".

Gittip is picking up steam as a way to distribute small recurring payments to open source developers.
posted by sexymofo at 2:07 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I seem to remember a large online community I was the business manager of called LiveJournal, which did surprisingly well without ads for years, with numerous hired staff. We also paid $20k+ a month on servers, colocation, etc... all through memberships that people *really didn't have to buy* in order to appreciate and use our largely non-hobbled site!

It's not the same thing. LiveJournal is crowd-sourced content, and the Penny Arcade article argues that the current state of things means there is no longer a way to pay for professional journalism.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:08 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Penny Arcade proper, as in Mike, Jerry, Robert and all the others really has nothing to do with the Penny Arcade Report. They have no editorial control and do not sign off on anything. That was a major goal of theirs before starting a news site.

This is some classic Ben Kuchera ranting, here, is all this is. He'll get over it.
posted by gilrain at 2:09 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Do not browse without AdBlock+, Ghostery, etc. You're favorite site might need money, but advertisements distribute more malware than porn. Google spends oodles tracking sites that distribute malware, but even advertisements on Google have distributed malware. Did I mention that SMS ads deliver malware too?
posted by jeffburdges at 2:10 PM on April 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


Gmail became the dominant webmail system by a) offering way more storage than everyone else, but also through b) developing an extremely unobtrusive advertising system rather than giant flashing banner ads.

I'm really surprised more websites haven't learned this lesson. Yeah, I adblock, not b/c I don't want people to get paid but b/c as everyone's noted, the style of ads is generally fucking annoying. Flashing or moving ads make it hard to read text elsewhere on the page. People don't mind static ads in newspapers, but they don't expect TV-style audio-visual ads in another text-dominated medium.

You can also see why there's such a push to mobile apps though, to get around the adblock issue.
posted by modernnomad at 2:11 PM on April 17, 2013


> You can also see why there's such a push to mobile apps though, to get around the adblock issue.

I don't know how it is on iOS, but it's easy to adblock in-app and browser ads on Android.
posted by gilrain at 2:14 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sure they thought about it, Holy Zarquon. The problem is, they thought about it amongst themselves, trying to maximize ad profitability, regardless of how it impacts their product.

T-shirts, in themselves, are not enough... but you'd be surprised how profitable membership-driven sites can be relative to ad-driven sites.
posted by markkraft at 2:14 PM on April 17, 2013


I think his math is way off too. My site serves up about a million pages a year (if 800,000 can be rounded up to a million). I get close to a thousand unique visitors a day (if 700 can be rounded up to 1000). They read about 3 pages a visit (if 2.7 can be rounded to 3).

I took all ads off my site because google was paying me around $50 a year (paid out whenever I hit $100). People are blind to ads with or without ad block.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:20 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


it's easy to adblock in-app and browser ads on Android.

I wish someone would tell me how, cause I haven't been able to get any adblockers working on my Galaxy or my Nexus.
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 2:26 PM on April 17, 2013


The problem is, they thought about it amongst themselves, trying to maximize ad profitability, regardless of how it impacts their product.

Or they did the exact opposite of that and adopted a model where they select ads that don't interfere with their product and get kicked off the site the second they do something shady, or even sell a product that turns out to suck (Mike and Jerry have publicly retracted ads for heavily-hyped but subpar games in the past).

I realize you feel strongly about this but PA and PAR are not good case studies.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:27 PM on April 17, 2013


Just curious cjorgensen: when you visit your site do you see any ads that are relevant to you?
posted by wotsac at 2:29 PM on April 17, 2013


"It's not the same thing. LiveJournal is crowd-sourced content, and the Penny Arcade article argues that the current state of things means there is no longer a way to pay for professional journalism."

Yeah... well, they're clearly, factually wrong about that one.

Now, I have to admit... I personally dislike paywalls. However, it is possible to create hybrid business models, where most content is free... or at least free-ish. Because there are a LOT of ways you can make money via websites. I just mentioned a few, and frankly, most websites don't even go that far.

And the thing is, you can implement these kind of systems -- and make the ask from your customers -- without coming off like the Wall Street Journal, too.

The important thing is that you don't turn away visitors or lose the trust of your current visitors, as you implement sources of new revenue... but that just means that you have to communicate with your readers and actually think about the design of your website, beyond simply optimizing it for page hits and ad views.
posted by markkraft at 2:32 PM on April 17, 2013


This is some classic Ben Kuchera ranting, here, is all this is.

Ah, so it is! Good eye. Previously.
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 2:33 PM on April 17, 2013


wotsac: Well, now, since I only pimp my own stuff or my lawyer, but back when I ran google ads they were generally relevant to the content, but yeah, that was also part of the decision to dumb them, since I'd see ads to scammy things (one trick crap) or politics I didn't agree with (Obama wants you to fail!). It wasn't worth my time to police the ads, so they went away.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:34 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


How many services, cultural events and content do we think should be financed by ads, that is by attempts to sell other services, products and things. Its such an inefficient and counter-productive way of organizing society.

Not using adblock is like accepting this crazy system we have designed for ourselves. Using adblock might eventually force us to come up with some other way of redistributing wealth to avoid this inefficient system.

UBI (Universal Basic Income) would be one way to help a lot of content producers survive without advertising.
posted by mary8nne at 2:36 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


Isn't this room for a kind of "ad-oubliette" app? For most folks the issue with ads is not the bandwidth, but the intrusiveness. Is it possible to run an add-on that instead of blocking the ads, appears to accept them and send them to a sandbox, invisible to the user and isolated from the browser proper? I have no expertise in this area, so I'm just throwing this out there.
posted by Jakey at 2:46 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


" they did the exact opposite of that and adopted a model where they select ads that don't interfere with their product and get kicked off the site the second they do something shady, or even sell a product that turns out to suck"

They did the same thing at LJ too, when ads first went live there. They had the same high intentions. They put a lot of work into integrating ads, blocking ads, etc, etc. Lots of work, considering how little ads can pay at times.

As such, they were quite surprised to find out that despite their best, highest intentions, that they had inadvertently distributed ad-based malware to their users. And they were surprised when it happened again, too.
posted by markkraft at 2:46 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


A few comments on video ads:

Video ads seem to be more effective for advertisers, and earn more money for publishers. This may push more content to be created in video form, which may have advantages and disadvantages.

Google/YouTube pushes advertisers to use a relatively new ad format that can be skipped after 5 seconds because they know (very precisely) how much people dislike a 30 second pre-roll ad, and they do want the users to be (reasonably) happy. When you see a 30 second unskippable ad, it's because the advertiser thought they knew better.

Google works pretty hard to prevent accidental clicks, even adding dead zones around ads. No UI is perfect, of course.
posted by jjwiseman at 2:51 PM on April 17, 2013


They did the same thing at LJ too, when ads first went live there.

Seeing as the articles talk about pop-unders and interstitials, I guess it didn't last long.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 3:01 PM on April 17, 2013


Yeah... well, they're clearly, factually wrong about that one.

Now, I have to admit... I personally dislike paywalls. However, it is possible to create hybrid business models, where most content is free... or at least free-ish. Because there are a LOT of ways you can make money via websites. I just mentioned a few, and frankly, most websites don't even go that far.


(As mentioned in a previous comment upthread), I believe implementing a paywall is helping turn things around for the NYT, and the Economist, which has had a paywall since day 1, is doing fine.

Japan has also never really been all that into distributing content for free (although there is a substantially amount of user-generated content online, a la LJ) still has a robust "old media" industry.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:09 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


LJ gets their ads from Google, just like most other businesses, but has had open policies in place for quite awhile as to their advertising... something that few companies do have. And when significant issues involving malware do occur, they actually announce it. Lots of websites don't.

If LJ has been hit by malware more than Penny Arcade, I would wager that it has more to do with the number of ads it serves per day, as opposed to the actual policies involved. But still, a quick Google search of Penny Arcade malware turns up possible prior issues there as well.. certainly within their forums.

So if you think LJ is an extreme example of ads gone wrong, well... you're kinda missing the point. Ads are Russian Roulette, and there are people who are highly motivated to get such ads past Google. And they succeed, too.
posted by markkraft at 3:23 PM on April 17, 2013


Copper is another micropayment system (built over the last few years by a friend of mine).

It'll be interesting to see how the micropayment systems work out in the long run. I suppose I'd rather have ad-free content, but I also notice that, even though all I have to do is click the little Copper button on my browser toolbar, I have reliably forgotten to do that since I installed it a month ago.
posted by superdne at 3:25 PM on April 17, 2013


"Say I want to pay myself $500 for the month. It’s not a ton of money. I need 150,000 page views."

And just think... If you get 1,500,000 extra page views a month, you can just about afford the salary of a web design specialist with e-commerce experience, who will help implement and optimize your site for views and ads, while trying to keep the worst of them at bay!
posted by markkraft at 3:36 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would be willing to view a lot more ads than I do now if they would just stop moving so much. The non-stop animation just drives me crazy. That's what I love about newspapers. The ads are there, but they are blissfully still.
posted by freakazoid at 3:46 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


but I also notice that, even though all I have to do is click the little Copper button on my browser toolbar, I have reliably forgotten to do that since I installed it a month ago.

I've noticed that with all the micropayment systems shared here. There's not a lot in it for readers except "feeling good about supporting the content they enjoy."

The model I'm thinking of is closer to an outsourced magazine subscription service, maybe. That still leaves publishers in the tough position of putting up paywalls or figuring out bonus content and freebies for subscribers.

Maybe a subscription RSS reader as robust as Google Reader was (starring, sharing & social tools, searching)? With early access to articles and posts and/or bonus material for readers? Or special, subscriber-only curated feeds? With tiered membership levels and rates based on number of feeds, with a percentage for publishers to encourage them to participate?

Just thinking out loud.
posted by notyou at 3:50 PM on April 17, 2013


Advertising has always been subject to spoiling of the commons. Every time someone finds a new way to advertise, initially it's rare and it's effective. Other advertisers notice this, and jump in too, and eventually they saturate and effectiveness drops. Then they search for the next way to advertise.

Highway billboards were like that. When there were only a few of them, they actually worked pretty well. But eventually there were so damned many that someone wrote a poem:

I think that I shall never see,
a billboard lovelier than a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see a tree at all.

And so it was with advertising in mass transit. Advertising on grocery carts. Advertising in newspapers. Advertising on TV.

And it's happening online, but that's an even more pernicious situation. The guy who came up with the first pop-behind did very well with it. But then there were lots of pop-behinds -- and then there were pop-behind blockers. Now the blockers are a standard feature of major browsers.

The first email spammers did well, too. But then Bayesian filters became common, and now spammers are up against it.

Online advertising is up against the fact that the users can use filtration to remove crap they don't want to see. There are two solutions to this.

1. Try to find a way past the fitration, to shove your ad in the potential-customer's face.

2. Try to figure out how to make your ad something the customer wants to see.

The problem with #1 is that it just inspires the audience to ever greater, more complicated and comprehensive filtration. #2, on the other hand, works very well.

If you think about it, amazon.com is a mammoth site consisting entirely of advertising. And it's one of the busiest sites on the web.

But most advertisers don't have that kind of mindset. Advertising is, by its very nature, obnoxious, and advertisers have an obnoxious attitude. So they will continue to ruin things for themselves, and then cry plaintitively "But what about us?"

My heart bleeds. They have brought this on themselves, and I have no pity.

By the way, some magazines do support themselves with PBS-style contribution drives. National Review does that, for one thing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:58 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Flattr, mentioned above, sort of solves this, but I think it's too cumbersome, awarding payment based on your clicks. Why click or like or whatever content you want to pay for? Why not just allow users to subscribe from the pot of dough they've set aside?

Flattr does have this option already - You can subscribe to a thing by clicking the flattr button a second time after you flattred. Subscriptions are auto-flattred on the 1st of every month. The monthly budget you choose is divided by the number of flattrs you make.


The thing that worries me about killing advertising with ad-blockers is what will replace it - advertorials, paywalls, an increasingly closed web where you have to jump through all kinds of hoops just to read an article.
posted by Lanark at 4:07 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think that I shall never see,
a billboard lovelier than a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see a tree at all.

BURMA SHAVE
posted by juv3nal at 4:19 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


The problem with game writing is gamers. There are great sites like Action Button, RockPaperShotgun, This Cage Is Worms and Eurogamer. A bunch of entitled manbabies rage at them for being too pretentious, not sexist enough, or posting scores that don't confirm to the Metacritic average. Kotaku is what gamers want, and even that enrages them when it goes beyond 'GAME GOOD, GIRL PRETTY'.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:20 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Maybe 10 years ago, there started to be available boxes which would record TV shows, and play them back skipping the ads. (I owned a ReplayTV and it worked really well. Then the broadcasters sued the ReplayTV company out of existence.)

Obviously the broadcasters hated it. Jamie Kellner, then head of the Turner cable channels at AOL-Time-Warner, gave an interview in which he claimed that that people who view television have a contractual obligation to view the advertising.

He was full of shit. There was no contract with his viewers, actual or implied. But ad filtering represented a mortal threat to his business model.

He didn't address this question: If people have an obligation to view the advertising, do they also have an obligation to purchase the products being advertised? Because that's the point, after all. The advertisers were paying him to run their ads in hopes of increasing their sales. That's where the money comes from.

The old "captive audience" model of advertising is facing a setting sun. Technology is rendering it obsolete, and if advertisers want to survive they're going to have to change how they do business.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:24 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


By the way, another example of spoiling the commons: I don't go to movie theaters any more because I object to paying in order to watch fifteen minutes of advertising before the movie starts. (At least in the old days they'd toss in a cartoon or two.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:27 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


"By the way, some magazines do support themselves with PBS-style contribution drives. National Review does that, for one thing."

According to Alexa, Penny Arcade is ranked #4,211 on the web. That puts it well ahead of the Times of London... it also puts them well ahead of the National Review, ranked at #5,227. If you compare the two sites, you'll also notice that Penny Arcade has about twice the number of pageviews per visitor, and that 1.6% of their visitors check out their online store during their visit, in addition to the articles, forums, etc.

Say what you like about William F. Buckley, but he never whined about how people weren't fully cooperating with his business model.
posted by markkraft at 5:24 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


A site I like to read displays a banner about whitelisting "their" ads, but there is no way to give them feedback about the conditions under which I will do that. The request they're making is "open up your machine to God knows who, we need the revenue". The deal I'd be willing to make is "ok, but in return you accept liability for what that site does as though it were your own site". Of course only a fool would go for that, but there is one of the issues: the site they shunt you to is doing whatever it pleases and might not be all that picky about whether they are serving up malware.
posted by jet_silver at 5:31 PM on April 17, 2013


The thing that worries me about killing advertising with ad-blockers is what will replace it - advertorials, paywalls, an increasingly closed web where you have to jump through all kinds of hoops just to read an article.

The politically correct term for what's just around the corner is brand journalism.

“I'm convinced that those with the traditional skills of marketing, public relations, and copywriting are not the right people to create brand journalism content. Instead you need the skills of a journalist.”
posted by KokuRyu at 5:39 PM on April 17, 2013


You know what? There's a whole nother problem with the complaint against ad-blockers.

If everyone stopped using ad-blocking software, and every site on the internet suddenly had a bunch more advertising impressions to sell, would advertisers suddenly have more money available to spend on ads? Many advertisers already have the option to pay 2x as much for 2x as many impressions, but they don't do this now. Would they start if I turned off adblock?

If they would, it would be a mistake, because I'm sure as hell not buying whatever bullshit you're forcing into my browser. FOAD, advertisers.
posted by aubilenon at 6:08 PM on April 17, 2013


The payments should be distributed via the adblockers. Either $X amount per year. Or you buy ad credits, everytime adblocker blocks an ad it pays someone some money. When you run out of credit you get ads again.
posted by lrobertjones at 6:32 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


there needs to be an authority who can say what kinds of talk are unacceptable and which aren't.
We've tried to set this up but it always turns out that they're more interested in things like keeping people from leaving or returning to the country and punishing people for being critical of Murat Zyazikov.

I'm sure that some time soon, the kinks in centralized authority over discourse will be ironed out. It's been 1700 years, so we have to have made at least some progress.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:00 PM on April 17, 2013


I'd much prefer a system where giving favorites/tips/upvotes/likes equates directly to giving money. I'd rather know that my "+1" means the author is earning a few cents than feel like my eyeballs are the subject of a bidding war between the adblockers and the advertisers. (The trick, as others have mentioned, is getting micropayments to work.)
posted by jiawen at 7:02 PM on April 17, 2013


@This, of course - I'm not referring to government authorities, but authorities on private sites. Moderators, etc.
posted by LukeLockhart at 7:02 PM on April 17, 2013


You're completely right. Centralized authority in state hands may have failed, but this is 2013. The free market will fix it.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:04 PM on April 17, 2013


I really think we're miscommunicating. I'm not referring to any sort of authority that doesn't exist on a forum like this one. I'm just saying that newsgroups, being unmoderated, were prone to extreme bigotry and derailing tactics that favored cisgender male voices above all others.
posted by LukeLockhart at 7:13 PM on April 17, 2013


There are issues with the efficacy of that, too, not the least of which being that power, of whatever kind, tends to serve power. Simply turning many people (through legal assault, fear of punishment, etc.) into an instrument or extension of a smaller group of persons privileged through technology is not a solution when the person or people of whom they become extensions is the problem.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:24 PM on April 17, 2013


David (Twisted Metal) Jaffe's suggested response is either unintentionally hilarious or genius trolling.
Ok so anyway- we get a bunch of names of people doing great work in game journalism and then we- as a game community- vote and whittle it to 5 names.

Then we do a yearly Kickstarter to raise 175K.

125 K goes to pay 1 of the 5 reporters (pulled randomly from a hat or voted on by the folks who contributed to the Kstart) a yearly salarty. The remaining 50K goes to pay for expenses (games, travel).

The reporter posts whatever they want on a blog. There is no editor, no advertising/sales group to worry about, and they can update when they want and write about whatever they want. The only harm for doing a bad job (and I define a bad job as simply filing way too few stories) is looking terrible in the public eye that funded them and wiping out their chances of being included in next year's list.
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:31 PM on April 17, 2013


Honestly, this is a great article. This might be the most damning part: If they spend 20 minutes repeating the story it took me a day to put together, and they get the same or better traffic, they’re being the rational actor in this industry, not me. I get angry, and sometimes I have to take it out on the punching bag, but the cold reality is that they’re not being assholes about things, they’re merely reacting to a massively fucked up system. They're working smarter.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:56 PM on April 17, 2013


That's why the "distributed" model isn't going to work - there needs to be an authority who can say what kinds of talk are unacceptable and which aren't.

I laughed for a second, then realized you were serious.

This is a terrible, terrible idea. I don't often say that. You're trying to build your ideals (and they are yours, not everyone's) into the system. So let's imagine you get your central authority (which would probably have to be an artificial intelligence so it can CENSOR ALL THE THINGS, because ALL is pretty big). Awesome, you've got it set up.

Then some Bush progeny gets voted into office, and, just like the US government can lean on ICANN, they take this power you've granted over ALL THE THINGS and say, "You know what? I think we should just make sure that thing never mentions abortion again." Or "the gays." Or whatever. Google returns a misspelling like Did you mean a bert shun on a search. Google+ circles for teens in the closet vanish. A thousand Livejournals of transition diaries whirr out of existence as drive heads flip some bits on spinning platters.

And you've supported it.

You have to imagine, whatever chains you would like to put on people or their actions or their speech, that they're going to end up on you, in the hands of your most opposite ideological number. A drone in Afghanistan can fly over your hometown just as well. A surveillance system to monitor behavior you find undesirable can, with a quick voting shift, be used to watch over your presence at a protest you support. Every erosion of privacy for the scumbags can eat yours out from under you in ways you did not anticipate and will not like.

We must not give in to the urge to build mechanisms of control on others, if only for the very practical reason that those mechanisms can be used on us, as well, for purposes we would abhor.
posted by adipocere at 8:03 PM on April 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


The mechanisms of control already exist. They mean that the voices that are most heard on the Internet are cisgender, straght, and male. In forums that don't specifically provide protections against things like questioning transgender identities and telling women they deserve to be sexually harassed, trans people and women shut up because they know they won't be listened to and that they'll face an emotional assault every time they try to speak up. The creation of safe spaces is absolutely essential to allowing people who aren't already privileged in every other aspect of life to have their voices heard.

Quoting Orwell and talking about how free and wonderful the Internet is/used to be isn't going to change the fact that the society of freedom the Internet has created is a society of privilege.
posted by LukeLockhart at 8:09 PM on April 17, 2013


Uh, where'd I quote Orwell?
posted by adipocere at 8:11 PM on April 17, 2013


You didn't, but the direction you were going in was the usual thing I see in discussions like this, where I suggest things like "privately owned forums should ban users from being insensitive to transgender people" and people immediately start talking about how Reaper drones will take away our civil liberties.
posted by LukeLockhart at 8:12 PM on April 17, 2013


Maybe wait until I quote Orwell before you tell me I've quoted Orwell.
posted by adipocere at 8:14 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think that having safe spaces with heavy moderation, and having completely unregulated spaces where unpopular ideas can be freely voiced, are not mutually exclusionary goals. We have that right now, it's called the internet.
posted by whir at 8:14 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Getting back to the adblock thing, I personally have a deep hatred of advertising which probably arises from the aesthetic ideals of my generational cohort, among other factors. So I run adblock all the time, it's about the first thing I install on browsers and I am used to a blissfully ad-free web for the most part.

I'm also in a position where I've got plenty of bandwidth to spare most of the time, and I'd be happy to spend it on downloading banner ads, animated gifs and "punch the monkey" Flash monstrosities, as long as I didn't need to actually see the ads. It seems like a good compromise might be for ad blockers to have a setting where, from the server's perspective, they are downloading and displaying ads, but from the browser's perspective they are blocking them. Then I wouldn't be depriving PAR of their ad revenue (and the long-form journalism it supports), but I'd still be able to view the web the way I want to view it.

Obviously the party getting screwed in this scenario would be the advertiser, who would be paying money for an ad which wasn't really delivered in the spirit of that term, and I suppose if I really think about it that's a somewhat shaky ethical position to be in. Nonetheless, the choice of who gets to be on the losing side of a contest between myself, long-form journalists, and advertisers is not a difficult one for me to make.
posted by whir at 8:35 PM on April 17, 2013


whir, I'm definitely hoping for micropayments of some kind to pull through. There's some sites I hit every so often, but I'm just never going to buy a T-shirt from them.

I only hope that micropayments can get in place before the ad bubble bursts. Once that goes, there's a heck of a lot of websites that will go.
posted by adipocere at 8:40 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


adipocere: We must not give in to the urge to build mechanisms of control on others, if only for the very practical reason that those mechanisms can be used on us, as well, for purposes we would abhor.

I'd favorite that five times, if I could.
posted by Malor at 9:12 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


The problem with a benevolent dictatorship is that it is all too easy for it to become a malevolent dictatorship. And once it does it won't ever change back. That's the historical record.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:46 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Because web forums are exactly like countries in every way, and telling people "don't question my friends' gender identity in a way that contributes to their demographic's near 50% suicide rate" is exactly like being the Gestapo.
posted by LukeLockhart at 9:48 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Every censor thinks they're doing it in a good cause.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:59 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm just saying that newsgroups, being unmoderated, were prone to extreme bigotry and derailing tactics that favored cisgender male voices above all others.

There were moderated newsgroups too. What's more, Usenet is not the only possible model for a distributed discussion system. Public-key encryption makes it possible to separate the distribution mechanism from the moderation mechanism; we could use something analogous to bittorrent to distribute forum content, with something like digital signatures authenticating moderator decisions. It wouldn't even be particularly difficult. The problem is in convincing people to use it, and that depends on the simultaneous occurrence of a group of people with the technical chops to implement it and a group of people with a social network ready to promote it.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:01 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Every censor thinks they're doing it in a good cause.

This seems like a very strange place to be equating forum moderation with fascism. I don't know if you read the Boston Marathon thread, but people commented that they came here to discuss the bombing instead of Reddit, because this is one of the very few places on the internet that you can count on sane and intelligent discussion of such a thing.

Now, why do you think that is?
posted by rifflesby at 10:51 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


"That's why the "distributed" model isn't going to work - there needs to be an authority who can say what kinds of talk are unacceptable and which aren't."

First, let me say that I absolutely agree with Luke's concerns that you need online environments that are supportive of women, the LGBT community, and many others that don't fit the mainstream.

That said, I have experience with sites like LJ, and can safely say that you can, in fact, address a lot of these issues in a decentralized way. In fact, one of my original ideas for LiveJournal was to redesign the site's code so that LJ Code sites could seamlessly interact together. You could host your blog or community on LJ's servers... or elsewhere... and it would just work. However, this didn't happen, largely because of the financial implications, unfortunately.

I think LJ got a lot right as far as user-created communities, in that they had strong tools for self-administration. As a community admin, I don't think I ever needed to get the site involved in resolving problems. If someone broke the rules, they got warned or banned. Admittedly, this still could leave large public areas as unfriendly for some, however.

It seems to me that the best way to deal with this is in the design process. If issues like admin policies, or inclusivity, or reputation, or a decision review process, etc. are important, design the software in such a way where perhaps admins can create their own little fiefdoms, but that they'll get less attention for them than for more inclusive communities with more open policies. Don't let the attention gravitate towards whoever's space has the best name, or the most current visitors. Gravitate it towards other factors.

Obviously, this is all easier said than done, but the point is, a lot has been learned about how to do these kinds of things right. It's important that designers start getting seriously in to the idea of designing for community... and that means designing for inclusivity, trust, identity, reputation, etc.
posted by markkraft at 11:04 PM on April 17, 2013


The problem with a benevolent dictatorship is that it is all too easy for it to become a malevolent dictatorship.

Well, the deeper problem with benevolent dictatorships is that they always are malevolent dictatorships, to someone. But that's politics, not web site management.

And once it does it won't ever change back. That's the historical record.

Um, what? So then we're living under a malevolent dictatorship now? In any case, this doesn't seem to apply to the question of forum moderation. How'd we get onto that subject anyway?
posted by JHarris at 1:27 AM on April 18, 2013


But that's politics, not web site management.
As the internet grows in importance, these questions intertwine. We could, of course, all leave and do things in real life, but that's unlikely to happen.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:55 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now, why do you think that is?

Because they prefer the tone to the tone on reddit? What does it say about the scores of other people that don't leave? Really, absolutely nothing other than some people prefer one thing and some people prefer other things. Who would be the appropriate arbiter of said system? How would you keep it from becoming corrupt? How do you even know if we sat down to create such a system that the dominant position would be that of tolerance and understanding?

If we tried to implement something like that, we'd end up with a horribly hackneyed solution where we had to praise god every time something good happened and couldn't disparage brands or corporations because it would create a hostile environment for commerce. It's not like we could appoint Dan Savage to be the Decency and Respect Internet forum Tzar; anyone who would promote a compassionate view point would be laughed out of congress or wherever this magic forum moderating position would be confirmed.

The reason those safe places are so important is because they're not the dominant view. How would you get people to even agree to the basic premise that women, gay, trans and other minorities deserve equal treatment. It's an insane idea in a day and age where people are afraid of the black president and we have no idea if the supreme court will support marriage equity for gays.

Not only that, but these view points are often so nuanced, that who decides which one is right and is allowed? A few weeks ago I discovered an issue I didn't even know existed - a small but vocal minority of lesbians are staunchly anti male-to-female trans. I was floored, I thought it was hate filled and self defeating because aren't they all in it together; fighting for equality? Then I started reading some of the view points and watching some videos explaining the issue, and the issue is that they feel that it's a way for men to invade their space; especially trans men who only go part way or even only dress as a women. And just like the "white night" creepers found in feminist circles, there is apparently a small number of m-t-f trans men that use it as a way to pick up chicks. Or at least that's how they saw it.

I'm doing the topic no justice at all. But what I'm trying to explain is that even the minority groups aren't on the same page, and lesbians who believe this about trans men wouldn't feel it was a safe place, nor I suspect would trans m-to-f feel it was a safe place if lesbian women were allow to express their concerns about m-t-f trans.

I am honestly saddened that people think that the answer to societies ills is censorship. Is there a time that's ever gone right? We look down at our noises on societies that have laws based on a nebulous code of decency that is set in stone, like various islamic countries. What would make us an different or able to do it any better? Certainly not because the majority of Americans agree with the viewpoint necessary for the safe censorship needed - if we did, we wouldn't need it.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 3:01 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


As far as I can tell, LukeLockhart is talking about top-down moderation on websites, imposed by the people who own and run those websites, rather than top-down moderation from the government level. It's moderation on the level of the mods of MetaFilter deleting posts and comments, rather than the FCC shutting down websites.

UseNet, leaving aside the technical implementation of UUCP, feels like it works a lot like LiveJournal or Tumblr, as an agnostic aggregator - so, the user selects their own set of content providers (a UseNet group or an LJ friendslist or a Tumblr follow list), and is largely protected from content they want to avoid, but the platform is basically agnostic - it will publish anything, within technical and legal possibility. That's not a perfect system - somebody could troll a UseNet forum, or an LJ account could be hacked, or someone you thought was cool could post something deeply uncool to their Tumblr blog. LiveJournal and Tumblr don't editorialize, outside questions of legality, or generate their own content, and they make their money from sheer weight of visitors, whether those visitors are looking for erotic fan art or knitting patterns.

Whereas a site like The Border House curates its content carefully. It is produced by a relatively small number of people, who are selected because they can be trusted not to violate the (anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-transphobic, anti-ablist) editorial philosophies of the site, and its value proposition is specifically that, as a reader, you will get content of that kind, down to hateful speech being removed from the comments, IIRC. That limits the audience, but it increases the likelihood of deeper engagement with the site by the audience being targeted.

Those are two very different value propositions. Ben Kuchera is largely talking about sites somewhere in the middle, who depend on a large audience for financial viability (because they rely on ad revenues) and proposing that a benefit potentially provided by these sites (in-depth, carefully researched journalism) is supported by and also justifies other types of content (galleries of scantily clad cosplayers, "Top 10 sexiest videogame characters" and so on).
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:56 AM on April 18, 2013


If everyone stopped using ad-blocking software, and every site on the internet suddenly had a bunch more advertising impressions to sell, would advertisers suddenly have more money available to spend on ads?

I doubt it, most advertising is either flat rate or cost per click and the kind of people who install ad-blockers are unlikely to click adverts even if the blocker is removed.

The other elephant in the room is that the internet is still growing, if advertisers have a fixed advertising budget spread across more websites and more pages - that means any site which stops growing will see ad revenue decline - even if their audience figures hold steady.
posted by Lanark at 10:16 AM on April 18, 2013


I wonder if it makes a difference financially that Rock Paper Shotgun is a British site. ... So (maybe) they don't have to provide the same kind of benefits to their employees, and have a lower operating cost.

Hard to say how it pans out for any particular business, but the UK health and welfare system does have to be funded through taxes of various kinds, which add to the cost of doing business in ways that offset not having to provide those things at company or individual level.

A part of the reason why an iPad or a pizza costs a lot more in the UK than the US is you're putting some money into the pot for healthcare etc with your purchase. Both directly through the sales taxes, and indirectly through the income taxes of the people involved.

If anything, small businesses in the US likely have a lot more ways to skimp on contributing towards the nation's healthcare costs than in the UK. Not good for health provision, of course, but that's a different topic.

I would guess that overall small business operating costs are a fair bit lower in the US than the UK, and I've certainly never heard anyone claim the reverse.
posted by philipy at 10:48 AM on April 18, 2013


@Kevin Street

Pretty sure RPS is successful because it's turned itself into a brand with a dedicated userbase that promotes it.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:11 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


[insert clever name here], those cisgender lesbians are bigots and their prejudice against trans women is based on entirely imaginary fears and bigotry. They may be a minority group, but the oppression they face is not even close to the oppression trans women face. I suggest that if you found the bigoted views they expressed remotely plausible, you need to read up on issues like the suicide rate among trans people. Start here:

http://www.lauras-playground.com/mtf.htm
posted by LukeLockhart at 1:35 PM on April 18, 2013


"Pretty sure RPS is successful because it's turned itself into a brand with a dedicated userbase that promotes it."

Oh, absolutely. I'm just saying that the American health care system might make it a bit harder for businesses of a similar type to compete.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:34 PM on April 18, 2013


Am I misunderstanding? Are there not a number of US gaming websites comparable to RPS?
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:00 PM on April 18, 2013


The other elephant in the room is that the internet is still growing, if advertisers have a fixed advertising budget spread across more websites and more pages - that means any site which stops growing will see ad revenue decline - even if their audience figures hold steady.

That's a little less clear-cut to me, since a lot of the growth is companies that want to advertise. Is the growth of advertising-based sites outpacing the growth of businesses who want to advertise online? In the long term the answer clearly has to be "no". But because advertising-based sites do themselves by ads, and because the ROI for ads is very difficult to quantify, this can be pretty elastic in the short run.
posted by aubilenon at 6:05 PM on April 18, 2013


the internet is still growing, if advertisers have a fixed advertising budget

At the moment advertising is probably still migrating from traditional channels towards the internet, in line with the changes in where people spend their time and attention. So while ad budgets overall might be fixed, the share of them devoted towards the net can maybe increase quite a bit still.

But that process might already be pretty much over for certain product categories, maybe including the kind of things that are likely to be advertised on gaming sites.

Anyway, none of the stuff raised in the main article would be at all interesting if we were talking about some TV channel rather than a website. "We get a bigger audience if we put on plenty of lowbrow junk.... We'd earn more money if people would actually watch ads instead of channel hop or go to the bathroom in the ad breaks... The junk helps us pay for the good stuff... yadda yadda yadda....."

Think ecology. There are potential niches for critters that live off dung, so there will be critters that live off dung. Pointing out to the dung eaters that there are other critters that live satisfactorily off nectar is not going to change anything. And most likely the population of nectar feeders is already as large as can be supported by the available nectar supply anyway.
posted by philipy at 10:27 AM on April 19, 2013


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