Web adblockers and the potential for recreating the Usenet killfile problem

January 6, 2017

Here is a rambling thought.

Back in the days of Usenet, most Usenet readers supported 'killfiles' for filtering your view of a newsgroup. As newsgroup after newsgroup descended into noise, the common reaction of people was to get more and more elaborate killfiles so they could preserve what they could. The long term problem with this was that new readers of a newsgroup generally had no killfiles, so they generally took one look at the unfiltered version and left.

If you've recently compared the versions of the web you see with and without your adblocker, you may be thinking that this last bit sounds familiar. Increasingly, the raw web is simply an unpleasant place, with more and more things shoving their way in front of your face. Although there are other reasons to block ads, such as keeping your machine safe and reducing data usage, my belief is that a lot of people turn to adblockers in large part to get this clutter out of their face.

So, what happens if adblocking becomes more and more common over time? I suspect that one response from websites will be to run more ads than ever before in an attempt to generate more revenue from the steadily decreasing number of people who are actually seeing ads. If this happens, the result will be to make the raw, adblocker-free Internet an increasingly shitty place. Generally this will be the version of the Internet that new people are exposed to, since new people are quite likely to start out without an adblocker in their browser.

(Browser vendors or system vendors preinstalling adblockers would be a drastic change and would probably provoke lawsuits and other explosions.)

At this point I run out of sensible speculation, so I'm writing this mostly to note the similarity I see in the mechanisms involved. In the spirit of fairness, here's some differences as well:

  • people don't necessarily have good alternatives to ad-laden websites, so maybe they'll just live with the terrible experience (certainly plenty of websites seem to be betting on this).

  • it's getting so that everyone knows about adblockers and it's generally quite easy to install one and start getting a good Internet experience (unlike the experience with Usenet killfiles, which were as if everyone had to write their own adblocker rules).

And, of course, the web could always explode, rendering the whole issue moot.

Written on 06 January 2017.
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Last modified: Fri Jan 6 00:12:19 2017
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