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How quickly will ads disappear from the Internet?

I was always bemused by the notion that the Internet was able to exist solely because most users did not know they could install an ad blocker. Like removing Flash, using an Ad blocker was a rebellious act but one which paid off only for early adopters. But like all good ideas, it seemed obvious that this idea would spread.

What we never know is how quickly diffusion happens. I’ve observed “no-brainer” technologies or ideas lie unadopted for decades, languishing in perpetual indifference and suddenly, with no apparent cause, flip into ubiquity and inevitability at a vicious rate of adoption.

Watching this phenomenon for most of my life, I developed a theory of causation. This theory is that for adoption to accelerate there has to be a combination of conformability to the adopter’s manifest needs (the pull) combined with a concerted collaboration of producers to promote the solution (the push). Absent either pull or push, adoption of even the brightest and most self-evident ideas drags on.

Ad blocking offers a real-time example of this phenomenon. On desktop or even laptop computers ads were tolerable and the steps required to naviagate in order to implement effective[1] blocking were non-trivial. In addition, no platform vendors were keen to promote products which hindered revenues for their most important ecosystem partners.

Ad blocking as an activity had neither the pull nor the push.

However—and there’s always a however—as browsing moved to mobile devices and as ad networks hijacked the relationships between publisher and consumer, ads became detrimental to the experiences platform vendors depended on to remain competitive. Apple first (and no doubt others soon) chose to enable mobile browsers to load third party content blocking software. This is a hesitant first step. No major promotional effort and only the most obscure setting was enabled (defaulting to off).

Nevertheless, it’s important to see this action as a “push”. The bit that flipped was not of the consumer but of the producer. Movement to a new consuming paradigm and the incessant corrosion of the online experience threatened to taint a platform and something had to give.

Thus the “push” signal was sent and the consumer now has to pick up with a “pull” action. We still have to watch how quickly the pull happens and how network effects of users showing one-another the results will accelerate adoption and whether the push intensifies as the solutions improve.

But from this first enablement, the ecosystem, network effects, distribution and value chain leverage could cause gates to open and ad blocking reach majority followed by universal adoption. Measuring the ease of switching, the independence of the solution from other frictions and basing the estimate on historic rates, I could imagine internet ads will become largely invisible in less than five years.

Alternatives will emerge; the written word will find its business model, yet again. But the current model, contemptuous of the reader and disrespecting of the art will not long last.

Notes:
  1. By effective I mean a combination of whitelists and customizations []