The internet is tearing at the seams and digital ads are to blame. Top-level research and hundreds of articles have highlighted the true of impact of digital ads but most people are still oblivious.
Why? Ads, much like cigarettes, only cause problems at scale. While one cigarette likely won't harm you, habitual use can have very serious consequences. Advertisements work in the same way. While a few ads aren't likely to harm you, hundreds of ads every day can have very real impacts on both you and society as a whole.
First - let's start with a very truncated history of how we got here:
For the last 20 years, the internet has been entirely driven by advances in advertising. Advanced targeting technologies catapulted a handful of companies to become massive social media empires. Meta (formerly Facebook), Google, Twitter, and TikTok are all examples. But these meteoric trends have also resulted in a dark underside, and we are just now beginning to understand their impact. Here are a few we do know about:
Since marketing and advertising companies are compensated by views and clicks, online advertisers are focused on creating addictive material to keep users mindlessly engaged for hours on end.
The addiction to constant scrolling and increased screen time is an increasingly concerning health epidemic. Studies have shown a correlation between depression and screen time, which is especially prominent in younger generations. Other research has shown an association between increased screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents.
Misinformation, Fake News and Malware
Provocative and clickbait headlines attract more views and consequently generate more revenue. In the 2016 presidential election, fake news became dangerously problematic as articles claiming outrageous things ("Pizzagate", for example) gained more attention than journalism that used vetted resources, did thorough research, and was well-written. Foreign powers took advantage of the ad markets' “virality” system. In 2016, Russia published fake content and bought ad space that highlighted disinformation in an attempt to divide and destabilize the country. SecuredBorders, a Kremlin-tied Facebook page that pretended to be a US activist group. SecuredBorder spread anti-immigrant messages across the social media platform via targeted ads.
But advertisements have also been used as a vector for malware to compromise computers. Since ads are small bits of code running on your computer, they can be used to infiltrate systems that are insecure. This was the case in 2021 when ransomware gang REvil used paid positioning in Google search results to deliver malicious files to victims. Ads have also been used to socially engineer users into scams. In 2021 actors impersonated Mr Beast in advertisements in order to get fans to accept a common cryptocurrency giveaway scam.
Recommendation systems run the internet - whether it's clothes, cars, houses, or gadgets, recommendation sites are a crucial backbone of the internet. Today, most of the sites exist solely on advertising. This leads to a conflict of interest that is wildly apparent: a company places its own brands above third-party sellers.
Legislation has been proposed to ban companies from participating in their own marketplaces but so far the space has been difficult to regulate. Companies should be providing users users the best results, but instead, are motivated to show results that make them the most money via advertising and sponsorship dollars. As such, digital advertising is eroding consumer trust as they are showcasing sub-optimal products.
But the most insidious impact of advertising is far worse than mental health issues or fake news or the erosion of consumer trust. Ads make money on your attention, but the value of your attention has a max limit. In practice this is around $.002 per page view. This means that content producers have no incentive to create high quality content for a small number of people, because the revenue they'll get from ads will never be enough. Instead, the game is to create content that appeals the largest number of people, even if that means reducing the quality or accuracy.
This also results in YouTube videos with large unnecessary intros, cooking articles that have 10 minute backstories or simply repeated content with no value. It’s not far-fetched to say that the ad industry is slowing down the rate at which society can consume information, just so that users spend as long as possible staring at an ad.
Is there a way out?
One major reason why we continue to embrace ads is that no good alternatives exist. Many of us turned to traditional ad blockers thinking that this would solve the blight of ads, but lately, these have been ineffective in the face of ad block detectors. Anyone who has installed an ad blocker knows of the infamous "turn off your ad blocker" messages which are getting more pervasive by the day. The reason is that content will never be free on the internet, and ad blockers deny creators of revenue.
This is where Sphere comes in. We support creators and proactively fix the internet. Don't let one of the greatest creations from mankind devolve into madness. Get ad-free internet with Sphere.