Adblock's Mobile Browser: What's the hidden cost?

Adblock’s launched a mobile browser for the Android platform, based on Firefox’s mobile OS. It’s an interesting bit of engineering, but it also presages some serious changes in online writing.
I’ve complained about Adblock previously, but the recent news that Adblock has developed a mobile browser complete with its ad-blocking built in has me pondering the issue again.
Here’s what I wrote back in August 2013 on the issue:
“Adblock does perform some useful functions for a lot of web surfers. This I know to be true.
Adblock also does a lot to genuinely harm a lot of content creators. This I also know to be true. It’s that gap in the middle that I struggle with.
“I don’t want those ads — they’re annoying!”

“Try installing adblock plus as an extension to your browser – that should stop you seeing most of them.”

That’s a paraphrase of a conversation I was part of the other day, and it’s one that’s increasingly common. Adblock is used by a huge number of people browsing the web these days, most commonly with a set series of ad parameters in place that, in theory, make ad browsing more smooth and pleasant for the end user.
I understand that perspective, because I’ve been there myself. Those web sites with autoplay videos, or gigantic flashing overlay banners, or pop-ups, or pop-unders, or a random combination of 73 different flavours of all of the above obscuring the content you’re actually after. The balance of advertising is a tricky matter indeed, and I’ve given up on more than a few sites over the last two decades simply due to the use of excessive advertising tactics.
At the same time, though, Adblock hits the hip pocket of any media site that relies on advertising, which is to say most of them.
Including this one.”
And there’s the rub.
Ad support is part of the online media ecosystem. It most certainly shouldn’t be the only sole part of that ecosystem — believe me, I’ve tried a few avenues for Fat Duck Tech, and I’m in the midst of trying a few more — but they’re part of what pays the bills, keeps the lights on and allows me to keep eating. That’s true for any number of publications I contribute to as well.
Obvious side comment here: If you’re interested in sponsoring, advertising, etc, drop me a line.
So why get my nose additionally out of joint just because there’s a mobile adblock browser? After all, its mission, apparently, is to combat poorly thought out ads and routes by which malware can infest mobile handsets, and that’s no bad thing per se. In my experience, however, most people treat AdBlock as a set and forget kind of installation, which means that the sites that don’t use horrible flashing ads, or the worst of the malware ads, are punished equally along with the real offenders. Often more, because they’re usually popular sites, which means a bigger bandwidth and staffing bill to keep things going with even less revenue coming in.
The issue, though, is that there’s no such thing as an absolutely free lunch in a professional setting. Yes, anyone can publish online in this brave new media world, and I’ve seen many talented folk come up from the “independent” spaces into the pro ones. But if the ad revenue vanishes, you go elsewhere to pay the bills, or you cut the costs of operating. Cut the ads out of mobile, presuming the Adblock people can go cross platform to iOS, and you’re cutting out a lot of the eyeballs that advertisers are looking for. They head elsewhere, and the only thing you can cut is the cost of operation by hiring fewer staff, either internally or in a freelance capacity.
I can assure you, having worked for every single major IT publishers in Australia save the (*cough*) Phantom Hacker (*splutter*), there’s no more room to cut spending on writers. None, and in many cases it’s an issue of critical overworking the resources that are already there.
As it stands, while there’s no guarantee for any business model, including media, I can look at the local Australian tech landscape and see a whole lot less in terms of ongoing opportunities for writers, because there isn’t budget to pay them.
As such, everyone’s flat out doing jobs that used to be staffed by three or more people as a matter of daily routine. Either that, or their entire model — and there are players in the local scene who do this — is simply a factory for slowly regurgitating press releases fed to them by local PR agencies.
PR loves that without a doubt, because they can show their clients that the pre-approved messages are getting across, but it’s a very long strike from what I’d call “quality” journalism. It’s feasible to create content from within as part of a sponsored deal, but the traps are many, and you’re always going to be left wondering how much input the controllers of the financial purse had in the final content.
I’m not going to place myself above criticism here. I’ve written pieces that I’m understandably proud of, but equally I’ve written articles that have been much more quickly assembled on low budgets. As they saying goes, you can have it good, fast or cheap, but you’ve got to pick two.
Ads are cheap, especially for the end user, but with models such as paywalls having only really niche appeal, the other end point becomes a significant lessening of quality voices. No, it’s not the absolute heat death of writing, because people will always write in one way or another. I’m in the starting blocks of an entirely creative writing challenge over on my blog at the moment, and that pays absolutely nothing. I do it because I like doing it, and that’s fine too.
Equally, there are other ways to invest in writing, from Patreons to kickstarters — I note with interest that recent re-entrant in the Australian tech media space, Renai Lemay’s gone down the Kickstarter route — but that involves being willing to dip into your pocket regularly to fund that kind of writing. In an en masse sense, that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it might, which leaves the ads as the way that readers “pay” for content. Except when they don’t, and then there comes a point where the model breaks down.
It’s hard not to think that we’re already there. Directly after this you’ll find some advertising. Some of it isn’t great at all, but it’s only costing you some eyeball space. Might be worth pondering on that.

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