Don’t take me back to a web without ads.
I got my first email account the same year Cantor & Siegel shocked the nascent Internet community with Usenet ads for green card services. Widely regarded as the first Internet spam, their messages violated one of the cardinal rules of netiquette: no commercial postings.
Recognizing the net’s transformative potential, the National Science Foundation opened the Internet to commercial traffic in March of 1991. But despite this blessing from above, online communities (many founded by ex-hippies) clung tightly to a set of principles meant to keep the digital frontier free of the business world’s corrupting influence. The Internet was a place for the free exchange of ideas, not money. We were all equal; there was no rich or poor in 7-bit ASCII text. Some of us jokingly called ourselves the digirati, enlightened people living most of their lives in a virtual domain of ideas and beauty.
In hindsight, we were anything but enlightened. We were educated employees of large corporations, college students, and regular people connected enough to have even heard of the Internet. Netiquette worked so well because we lived in an echo chamber. Ideas flowed easily when the biggest arguments of the day were Democrats vs Republicans, Mac vs. PC, and Kirk vs. Picard.
A number of factors brought the wider public online in the mid-to-late 1990s, lured with promises of community, electronic mail, and home shopping. Amazon.com grew from a tiny little site selling a handful of discount books to well-known company poised to decimate brick-and-mortar booksellers. Sites like Geocites made it possible for anyone to create their own place on the web for free, as long as they made room for ads on their sites. They weren’t always the most attractive designs, but for some teenagers, minorities, and outsiders it was the first time their voices reached beyond their friends and family.
By this point, anyone with a hand-me-down computer and twenty bucks a month for service could share their ideas with the world. We abandoned netiquette’s ivory tower civility, but we gained diversity. Today, virtually the entire world is connected. We blog. We tweet. We game. We YouTube. We Twitch. And almost all of this creativity is made possible by advertising.
Advertising on blogs made the much maligned mommy bloggers possible. We replaced stereotypical isolated stay-at-home moms with tech-savvy indie publishers. My friends in the US watched the Arab Spring unfold on Twitter, which is largely funded through advertising. Occupy Wall Street streamed their highs and lows to the world, inspiring protests in other cities. The greater online community tolerates advertising because it brings so many empowering and entertaining tools within the average person’s reach.
With major sites’ traffic coming from mobile devices under 1–2 gigabyte monthly bandwidth caps, it’s unthinkable for a single web page to weigh in at over 4 megabytes of content, ads, and tracking scripts. It’s annoying to click close on an ad every single time you visit a link someone sends you. And when was the last time you watched a thirty second Geico ad in front of a fifteen second YouTube video?
I don’t blame advertising for what happened, but I sympathize with the people who said “enough is enough” and installed an ad blocker. And I support Apple’s decision to build support for ad blockers right into iOS 9. Surfing the web is so much more enjoyable with one. I installed Purify on both of my iOS devices and encourage you to try it, too.
Still, I hope this is only a temporary kerfuffle. I hope advertisers recognize what’s going on and try to meet the public’s demand for a more lightweight & respectful online experience. Because even though I sometimes look back nostalgically on those early days, I don’t want to go back to such a small online world. I love the internet (small “I”) we have today, and I can’t wait to see what the next generation does with it.