News & Views
Do social networks face an advertising backlash?

It might have evolved dramatically since the days of clumsy animated banners circa 2000, but advertising has long been, and still is, a fact of online life. Following Facebook’s underwhelming initial public offering in May, Mark Zuckerberg has amped up the social network’s focus on mobile device advertising, largely to please investors. Users of the native Facebook app now have ads integrated directly into their timelines, to encourage engagement.

Twitter, that other social media giant, has also delved deeper into advertising territory of late with its Sponsored Tweets and Trends functions, which enable businesses to promote their products and services to a wide range of people who are not necessarily followers. According to Twitter; “a Promoted Tweet will appear in a user’s timeline only if the Tweet is likely to be interesting and relevant to that user.”

But that algorithmically derived relevance can be misjudged, and it is a jarring experience to encounter what is essentially and transparently an advertisement among the personalised content of your Twitter feed. Usually when I come across one of these incongruous tweets, I simply un-follow whomever has posted it. But when I don’t follow that Twitter account to begin with, it’s more than a little frustrating.

Of course, there are two sides to every argument. In Twitter’s defence, promoted crisis tweets were made available for free to the Red Cross, FEMA and other organisations in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy this month, highlighting the potential social benefits that can be reaped from “high priority” content. But for the time being at least, promoted tweets and integrated ads have one purpose: to sell us things.

The truth is, the majority of social networks make their money from advertising. However, one network steering clear of that particular revenue stream is Reddit. Perhaps aspiring to attract social media users who are disgruntled with the emphasis on advertising inventory on sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, Reddit is offering an advertisement-free Gold Membership.

In a blog post, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong explained the decision to shun advertisers in favour of users: “The problem is that if your site is funded primarily with advertising, then you are beholden to your advertisers. If your users choose to post something politically or culturally controversial, you come under editorial pressure from advertisers to remove or modify it…This eventually results in a watering down of the true, authentic content on the site… It’s one of the reasons Digg failed.” The catch with Gold Membership is that it costs $4 per month (or $30 annually). Hardly a fortune, but it does beg the question; would you pay to live ad-free?

The Palo Alto-based developers behind AdTrap certainly hope so. Currently in the process of sourcing funding on Kickstarter, AdTrap is a device which sits between your internet provider and your wi-fi router and acts like a digital bouncer, blocking any kind of ad that can be delivered to a desktop, tablet or mobile device. The aim is to “make the internet yours again”, and to eliminate the frustration of music and video streaming being interrupted by those pesky 30 second commercials. AdTrap is also designed to prevent the cookie tracking which so many advertisers rely on, and is easily updatable, enabling it to continue to block whatever new kinds of advertisements might be developed in the future.

The first step towards an ad-free internet? Possibly. But something tells me the investors at Facebook will have a thing or two to say about that.

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