For the sake of this exercise, please imagine it’s another gray midday in winter, months after the end of the World Series and still weeks from the beginning of spring training.
The afternoon is sunless but somehow also hangover-bright, and your brain has decided to make it worse. It wants to know how things are going with the New York Mets. Damaged though it is, it still knows where to find this sort of information. And so the keywords are entered and the search results returned, with a local newspaper’s reliably solid coverage up top.
The headline is decently grabby, and the story seems likely to be authoritative, engaging, and brief. All of which is to say that it is worth a click. So you click it.
The page loads, and a little video ad box rises from the bottom left of the screen and begins buffering. Then a big box pops up over the small one with an offer to subscribe to the paper at a special promotional rate. As you contemplate it, the video begins to play in a muted spasm. This throws a scrim of gray over the rest of the page, making it impossible to read.
Before you can deal with any of this, you’ll need to close this subscription box. You can achieve this by clicking either a tiny “x” or a passive-aggressive statement like “No, I don’t want great articles.” But while you’ve been triaging a second small video player has floated up into the middle left of the screen. A sedan silently snakes along a road hewn into a mountain and forces itself into your consciousness. It switches to a video of the Mets’ new manager, which you do not really want. Also, you now have to close a new rectangular ad at the bottom of the screen, advertising the same subscription offer as the first pop-up box.
You manage to close these various boxes, and now you can scroll. For a few seconds, anyway, until another ad creeps down from the banner ad above the headline. This one is pushing an online subscription to a different newspaper’s crossword puzzle. It briefly stops downward progress, then disappears. From there, it’s easy cruising for three ordinary paragraphs and one declamatory, single-sentence Sportswriter Special, before it’s time for another ad—a home treadmill—and then another paragraph, and then a large photo.
On the right side of the screen, taking up approximately a third of the available space, a gaggle of enthusiastic ads continues to shadow your progress like vultures circling a wounded animal.
This is an awful lot of work to read a few hundred words about how the Mets are—I am not spoiling anything here—currently being cheap and lazy and unaccountable and weird in the same ways that they’ve been for the last couple of decades. It is also the utterly normal experience of visiting a great many pages on the internet.
There are a few sites that look and work better—the ones that people pay for, generally, or ones built with the luxurious snowdrift margins of Medium—but mostly there are sites like this one and others that are even worse.
Even on the websites of august institutions ads interrupt the text every two paragraphs; ads follow you down the sides of the page like store security; ads pop up in boxes that resist being closed, the elusive little x evading your cursor.
There have always been websites like this, usually the kind that we save for private browsing: places to stream out-of-market sporting events, or download bittorrents of hard-to-find films, or browse other things that no reasonable person would admit to.
Now, a great many websites are at least a little bit like this. Not all of these sites are as hard up as they appear, but all of them—the authentically desperate and the merely thirsty, the ones trying heroically to sell their way out of a downward spiral and those blithely steering into it—have made the same choice. Which is to look and feel and be more friendly to advertisers than readers.
It all happened in the way that decline generally happens in American culture, which is one anxious, hopeful, cynical capitulation at a time. We have compressed and corroded and finally collapsed what used to be the core of a publication—its relationship with its readers, and the basic notion that one should not make it hard for them to read.
It goes without saying that everyone involved is perpetually maxed-out and stressed and scrabbling for a dwindling and finite amount of money in an arbitrary and artificially constricted ad economy that runs on wobbly, untrustable, and easily manipulated data. (A friend who works in advertising operations described the work as “a game of catching falling knives.”)
In the last half-decade, ads have rapidly migrated from the sides and top of the page into the actual text. This is the result of pressures created by the transition from desktop computers to mobile devices. The ads need to get seen on a screen with no margins.
The ads that stalk you down the page reflect advertisers’ demands that their ads remain “in view.” And all the clammy unbidden video stuff is exactly as desperate as it looks. Not many people will watch video ads if given any choice in the matter. Taking choice out of the equation helps a lot.
Some sites have deliberately made the experience of reading them for free more assaultive, in order to bully readers into buying subscriptions. For the price of a small monthly indulgence on your end, it can all go back to normal and your laptop’s fan can finally turn off.
It’s a rolling, desperate, iterative exercise in seeing how bad things can become before readers finally stop coming at all. The pseudonymous author of the newsletter “Last Week In Ad Ops” describes it as “a decision that we know is bad, bad for our product, users, brand… but we do it anyway[,] often telling ourselves it’s ‘just for this quarter/client/order.’”
Once a little bit of extra money has been picked up, though—say by swapping out a recommendation widget that directs readers to other stories on the site for one of the ubiquitous chumboxes furnished by companies like Outbrain or Taboola—it is not easily put down.
Those ungainly grease-trap widgets, which link out to spammy slideshows about celebrities that have gained weight and miracle baldness cures, have the effect of making every site on which they appear look uglier and less credible. Still, they are profitable.
“That’s how moral debt literally launched an industry,” writes the author of the Ad Ops newsletter. “What was originally an algorithmic way to improve audience retention turned into some awful toe-fungus-shilling-zombie, infecting the bottom third of every article…If you want to get rid of it, you have to find the money elsewhere.”
All of this was, at some point, a choice. And then, at some later date, it wasn’t anymore.
In America in 2020, people are crowded with ads anywhere and everywhere physically possible, both on basic crass capitalistic principle and because most businesses are looking to pick up every dime on the sidewalk, including those with suspicious stains on them.
To see what happens when corporatism rules the earth, we need only keep scrolling down the page, past the last words on whatever opportunity to disappoint the Mets have most recently seized, and into the haunted dusklands of the infinite scroll.
What you see there will be different to what I see, because various entities have scraped various informational tidbits about you so that they can serve you advertisements more precisely.
I myself am greeted with two large sponsored ads: one for cars, and the other for a deal on car insurance couched in the now-classic Notice For [Wherever Reader Is Located] fake-headline style.
Below that there are three more ads. This first is not overtly spammy; it’s a slideshow on the high schools that have produced the most NBA players. (This is something I might even click if it weren’t from one of those anonymous content mills with names like SportsBelch or Manburger.) The other two overtly are.
One of those ads features a hale oldster on a surfboard whom the headline implies can help you “wipe out up to $10,000 worth of debt” and the other the grinning face of the bouffant spokescharacter for a large insurance concern, bearing good news of significant amounts of annual savings for “drivers who switch and save.” (I don’t have a car.)
I keep scrolling. There is a story from the local paper (man punches cop in Brooklyn), and then another story from a different paper owned by the same media company (“If Stephen Hawking Is Right About Earth’s End, Keep An Eye On The Deer”). By this point, the right third of the page is given over to a You May Like section that notes that its stories—”Most Americans Won’t Know A Single One Of These NFL Logos”; “These Are The Year’s Best Luxury Vehicles For Seniors”—are “sponsored links provided by Taboola.”
We are deep into the wild now. Local crime stories and international news-of-the-weird stories alternate with attractive offers on fixed-rate mortgages and last year’s SUV’s. Prince William is “furious” at Harry; you did not know that these 25 celebrities were gay; these mattresses are quite good; here are some photos of young women enjoying a music festival in Florida; here is “the perfect business phone tailored for your needs” and here is a man who was killed after saving a child from a dog attack and here is an album cover quiz and here is a man who confessed to murdering his girlfriend and here is something that all drivers born before 1993 should do, in the state in which I live, without a car.
The page is built, as many pages are now, to reset itself and repopulate with ads and referral links. There is effectively no end to it. You can scroll all you want. After a while there’s nothing there but the bottom, all the way down.