Death to advertising-supported content

S Aufrecht

Retired Site | PBS Programs | PBS

So we – spammers and the spammed alike – have a common interest in finding a way to efficiently target only the people who really want to buy Viagra. I believe it can be done. Any ideas? - Robert X. Cringley

Huh? If it weren’t Cringely saying it, I’d shoot the bastard. But since it’s him, I think about it… - Steve

Well I say, shoot the bastard. Here’s why.

His column, boiled down, says this:

0) [A red herring discussion of advertising-supported content]
1) Spam is the only successful type of internet advertising. If it wasn’t profitable, it wouldn’t exist
2) Spam is corrosive to email
3) Email is the killer app of the internet
4) We non-spammers should find a way to help spammers target their spam. Then it won’t be corrosive.

0 I’ll come back to later.

I agree with 1, 2, and 3.

I disagree with 4. It’s true but too narrow. He’s proposing an undefined systemic accomodation for a problem caused by a well-defined systemic flaw. As long as we’re doing systemic fixes, why not fix the real problem?

Spammers are parasites who make money via quirks of the SMTP protocol. Specifically, the way email works today spammers can make recipients pay for some of the cost of each email. The solution is then to change our mail protocol.

Once spammers have to pay representative amounts of money, spam will be like junk mail. This may not sound like a big win, but it is, for three reasons. First, increased spammer cost will set a ceiling on volume, just as we don’t get ten pounds of junk mail in our mailboxes. Second, increased cost will put the onus on spammers themselves to improve targetting accuracy, thus addressing the corrosion problem. Third, spam (and ultimately the morons who buy all the viagra and whatnot) will subsidize the rest of the internet.

Yes, changing our email infrastructure will be annoying and expensive. But it’s a specific, concrete idea (here’s one proposal) with a high chance of success. If it were implemented at the MTA level (back office) instead of MUA (desktop email programs), it would require hundreds of thousands of systems to change, but not hundreds of millions.

Now let’s go back and look at the red herring, the implied link between spam and advertising-supporting content. The obvious conclusion, which perhaps he’s saving for his next column, is that we should find some way to support content with spam, because that’s the only kind of advertising that’s profitable. Once again, let’s look at the real systemic problem.

The real systemic problem is advertising-supported content itself. It’s a system we’ve inherited from earlier broadcast media, where it succeeded due to the nature of the technology. If you want to produce content and send it to millions of households, and you have no way to charge any of them money, how do you collect money? You sell the attention of your audience to interested parties. Interested parties means advertisers. Since it’s a business, that means that creative decisions are effectively made by advertisers.

Consequences? News is censored to avoid offending advertisers. Content is planned around the disposable income of the audiences it will attract. Content that takes time to develop audiences, or that appeals to niche audiences, is usually killed in favor of more immediately profitable material.

When the internet went commercial advertising-supported content was the most obvious pure-internet business model simply because it’s what had come before. Now that it’s failed, now that no business model is obviously successful, what possible reason could there be keep recussitating on the web the system that made television and radio intolerably bad for so many decades? Instead, let’s keep experimenting with audience-supported content - for example Salon, the WSJ, and porn - and with micropayments and related technologies that were impossible in the 1930s but technically trivial today. Audience-supported content may not work yet, but neither does advertising, and only one the two has a future.

And let’s recognize that the huge success of the internet, the killer app of the internet, is free content. All those emails zipping back and forth - that’s content that people write and then just give away for free. All these weblogs, from crap to professional writing, give away content for free. As long as we all shell out twenty bucks a month to keep the machines humming, why should anybody else get a dime? Cringley writes:

Yahoo suddenly wants us to pay – because they have figured out that advertisers won’t pay, at least not enough to support the kind of earnings growth demanded by Wall Street.

If you haven’t yet figured out that “earnings growth” is code for pyramid scheme, you’re an idiot. And if you have, and you just want in before the pyramid collapses - collapses the rest of the way, I suppose - you’re a criminal. Let’s do our audience-supported experiments without the “benefits” of venture capital and Wall Street. I’m not saying down with capitalism, but I am saying, “up with post-capitalism.” I’m just not sure what that is yet. But it probably includes blogs and micropayments and peer to peer. And it’s a safe bet to have porn.