Online, ads are everywhere.
They bombard you when you try to read the news. They pop up between your friends’ Facebook updates. They’re disguised to look like regular results on Google. And one, maybe two play before every video you watch on YouTube — with more peppered throughout.
From the perspective of an internet user who is desperately trying to ignore, avoid, or block this constant deluge of ads — ads that have to get more and more intrusive in order to force us to pay attention to them — the power of the online advertising industry might appear unstoppable. Yet the digital ad market is a lot more vulnerable than it seems.
Advertising has played an integral role in shaping the internet as we experience it today, as it provided an easy and obvious way for services and websites to generate revenue. Web developers, website editors, and online business owners simply had to pop a few ad boxes onto their sites, and they were making money. But behind those ads is a vast infrastructure designed to track, target, and serve them, all paired with increasingly complex markets whose lack of transparency makes them ripe for speculation. A growing number of experts and analysts believe that these inherent flaws are creating a financial bubble that, when it bursts, could fundamentally reshape the internet as we know it.
The big question is: What kind of web would emerge on the other side? What would an ad-free internet look and feel like?
An internet designed to serve ads
“You can almost take any piece of the web, from the smallest thing to the biggest thing, and basically say, ‘What does the role of advertising play in shaping this?’ It’s sort of a gravitational force,” says Tim Hwang, author of Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet. “It acts on everything you see online.”