Worse than TV?

The New York Times ran an article last week on the cost of mobile ads. I’m surprised it did not raise more eyebrows.

In it, they counted all the data transferred when accessing articles from various websites, and categorized it by ad-related and content-related. What they found was that on average, more than half the bits go to ads; in some cases, way more than half.

But I think it’s worse, because, aside from download time, the article doesn’t go into the computational resources consumed by ads. To a first approximation, a static webpage should only use the CPU needed to render, and after that, nothing. But ad-infused webpage continue to use the CPU doing all manner of peek-a-boo’s, hey-there’s, delayed starts, etc.  This is taking your time and your battery life. If your phone has a non-replaceable battery, it’s also taking your phone life.

A few observations:

  • This is worse than television. On TV, content was 22 minutes of every 30. That makes 27% advertising by bandwidth. I recognize that there was advertising embedded in the content, as well.
  • This is worse than the article implies since so much web content is paginated, meaning you have to pay the ad penalty several times to see the content.
  • Ads effect wealthy users, who are more likely to have high-performance phones and high-bandwidth data plans, less than poorer users. Wealthy users will spend less time waiting for content and less time looking at pages to load. This also is different from TV.
  • A lot of editorial web content is of very low quality (again, subjectively, worse than TV because with TV you needed to attract some non-trivial audience and hold it) and even that is covered with ads. In fact, like radio, it seems like rather than having the prevalence of advertising correlate directly with the cost of production and delivery, it correlates somewhat negatively.
  • There is a game on between ad-blockers and advertisers that seems to have a Nash Equilibrium at a very bad place. That is, the ads are getting much more aggressive and taking more and more resources, and the countermeasures to avoid them are getting similarly aggressive, and there seems to be no clear bottom.

More than one person has explained to me that the ad-driven web is a fact of life, like gravity, and that we must all accept it. I’m not so sure. Better outcomes do seem possible. One might be micropayments, allowing people to access content on a per-click basis without the need for ad revenue. It was tried and failed. Maybe the situation was just not bad enough yet?

Another alternative would be for media to aggregate into subscription-based syndicates. Perhaps that will result in a two-tiered “free” and “paid” web that will match our stratified society.

The current trend is obviously for the web to implode leaving us with an app-based world, though I see no reason in the long term that even the best apps won’t eventually race to the bottom, as well.


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