Many writers and publishers are freaking out after Apple opened Safari to ad blockers in iOS9. Ad blockers have been around for a long time, but the fear is that this is the move that will take the concept mainstream.
That fear appears well justified. The App Store’s charts have been dominated by ad blockers since the release of iOS9 last week. Currently, the #1 paid app is Crystal, an ad blocker, and so is #3, Purify. Clearly some pent up demand.
Another data point is the following poll from The Verge. It was setup with an almost satirically over-the-top slant, and yet readers pummeled them:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it – Upton Sinclair
The prevailing response from the media business to this challenge is hysteria: The World Of Journalism As We Known It Is About To End.
It’s easy to make fun of such a frantic response. Just like it’s easy to make fun of French farmers driving their tractors into Paris to rebel against new environmental standards and falling prices. Or – it’s always the French, isn’t it? – French cabbies blocking Uber drivers at the airport.
But I think more than a little empathy is in order. The natural response to having your livelihood threatened is universally to FREAK OUT. It doesn’t matter if you’re a French farmer or cabbie or if you’re an internet writer or publisher.
Parallels in movies and music
In 1982, the movie industry infamously went before congress to involve them in a fight against the perceived threat of the VCR:
I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone… The investment of hundreds of millions of dollars each year to produce quality programs to theaters and television will surely decline.
Consumers are going to stop going to movie theaters, or they’ll skip over commercials on broadcasts, and the entire industry is doomed! Ring familiar?
Fast forward to 2014: The movie industry just set another revenue record. Despite VHS, despite torrents, despite Chinese bootlegs.
But the movie and TV industry has indeed made great changes since 1982. Customers wanted to enjoy movies and TV shows without commercials. From their home. On demand. And when the industry woke up to the futility of first blaming, then suing their customer base, they found a big market just waiting to pay for their creative output (oh, and the public never did stop going to the cinema either).
Another parallel is the music industry. MP3s and Napster caused similar consternation in the early 2000s (and the cassette player before that). Nobody was going to put out music anymore in this new world of flippant piracy!
Yet here, unlike the movie business, there actually was shrinkage of the overall market. From 2002 to 2014, the US music industry went from $25 billion to $15 billion.
So one story of better than ever results, another story of shrinking results. Such is the nature of business! If you believe that you’re somehow morally entitled to an ever-increasing industry pie, reality is going to be a merciless teacher.
The lesson to take away from disruption, beside that it’s better when it happens to other people, is not “everything is going to turn out as well as today or better”. Rather, it’s that fighting what consumers want is a losing battle. Blaming them or shaming them doesn’t work. Those are merely stalling tactics—a way to cope with the pressure and anxiety of not knowing what tomorrow is going to look like, or whether you’re still going to have the same job you do now.
The sooner you stop fighting the present, the sooner you can get to work on figuring out the future.
People are spending more time reading online than ever. If the written media business can only see a dichotomy between “we must have privacy-invasive trackers along with bandwidth-hogging and overlaying full-size ads” and “death”, they’re just not looking hard enough. But that’s okay: YOU’RE FREAKING OUT. It’ll pass, or at least recede, and you will come to your senses.
The pendulum had swung too far. Publishers had abdicated far too much responsibility for the user experience and privacy concerns of their readers for too long. The ad pushers grabbed that opening and cranked the nasty to 11. There was bound to be a reaction. This is it.
It’s a soothing story to blame Apple, pin them with a motive of treating journalists and publishers like collateral damage in a war against Google. But there’s an easier answer: It’s simply better for Apple’s customers!
(Remember reader mode in Safari? Hiding all the ads, reformatting the text? Same motivation, no complaints from the industry because it still loaded the ads, so even if readers never saw them, they still counted.)
Anyway, the proof is in the App Store chart pudding! Customers are flocking to pay for a solution that restores some sanity to their mobile browsing experience.
You can cry about it, you can stomp your feet, you can call Apple and readers mean names, but the ice cream isn’t going back on top of your cone. Take a few weeks to grieve, then get on with the mission of figuring out how the written word carries on without shoving intrusive ads down readers’ throats.
You can do it.