Stackoverflow, Advertising and the Ethics of a Free Lunch

If the Internet has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that:

  1. Advertising pays for otherwise free services;
  2. People don’t like advertising; and
  3. Advertising works.

These conflicting forces always cause consternation and Stackoverflow is by no means immune.

Stackoverflow is Free

One of the most important features of Stackoverflow is that it is free to browse, ask and answer questions. People like free. It’s one reason I believe that Stackoverflow has been so well-received by programmers as a whole. Of course it has it’s detractors (most of whom seem to lurk on reddit) but as Bjarne Stroustrup says:

There are only two kinds of languages: the ones people complain about and the ones nobody uses.

The lesson being that anything—not just programming languages—that’s popular will attract countercultural  malcontents keen to assert their non-mainstream identities.

Stackoverflow Costs Money

While the content is community driven (and thus free), the site is not. It takes money for hosting, hardware, software development, administration, support issues (separate to community moderators) and so on. No one would argue with that. Yet there appears to be a disconnect between the fact that something costs money and the activities required to earn that money. Either that or people mentally file that away as Somebody Else’s Problem.

So how does a “free” service pay for itself?

Micro-Transactions Don’t Work

An excellent resource on this is Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content:

This strategy doesn't work, because the act of buying anything, even if the price is very small, creates what Nick Szabo calls mental transaction costs, the energy required to decide whether something is worth buying or not, regardless of price.

Joel Spolsky has also spoken on this subject. In addition to the mental cost of transactions (no matter how small), Joel remarked on how people will do things for free that they will never do if paid (a small amount).

Segmentation Doesn’t Work

Market segmentation is the time-honoured technique of asking people how much money they have when they want to buy something rather than telling them what it costs, meaning what it costs is a function of how much money they have.

Joel speaks about this in-depth in Camels and Rubber Duckies.

Working my way backwards, this business about segmenting? It pisses the heck off of people. People want to feel they're paying a fair price. They don't want to think they're paying extra just because they're not clever enough to find the magic coupon code. The airline industry got really, really good at segmenting and ended up charging literally a different price to every single person on the plane. As a result most people felt they weren't getting the best deal, and they didn't like the airlines.

Perhaps it’s more correct to say segmentation doesn’t work in the long term.

Advertising Works

It’s clear that advertising works as a means of revenue. Why is it clear? If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have it. Of course, that doesn’t mean it works universally. It is obviously possible to lose money on advertising but it’s clearly possible to make money too.

Traditional media typically lied about conversion rates. Conversion rate is the percentage of visitors, users, viewers or listeners who see, hear or read an advert that take some desirable action, which could be simply clicking through or result in an inquiry, a sale or the like. Twenty years ago you’d have radio and TV marketing departments who would work up a model based on conversion rates of up to 25%. They did so because there was no way to refute their claims (other thank taking the plunge and getting disappointed with the result). With the internet such things are precisely measurable. Because the cost of distribution is so low, the conversion rates of 1 in 1000 (or less) are fine.

The other proof that advertising. Possibly 95% of email is spam, if not more. Clearly the conversion rate is non-zero otherwise they wouldn’t do it so that one guy in 10,000 who can’t find porn on the Internet (somehow) or thinks a plastic bottle of oregano will really extend his… well, you know… he is responsible for spam eclipsing legitimate email by a factor of 20-to-1.

Registration to Read Annoys People

The Evil Hyphen Site (ie Experts Exchange; deliberately no link) exemplifies this point. You can read content for free on that site if you either know where to look for free registration (deliberately not obvious) or you get to the site from Google (even though it says “register to see the answer” the answer is at the bottom of the page; try it).

This annoys people and is part of the reason that site has (justifiably) earnt so much hate.

Sometimes this registration is simply offensive, like why do I need to provide you with my date of birth and home address to read your forum post? Of course one has to wonder about what the less scrupulous operators are doing with such private information but even if you’re reputable, you don’t need it so why are you asking?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but as far as that sort of invasive information gathering goes, my name is Jimmy Hoffa, I’m 93 and I live in Afghanistan. I also run a banking company with a million employees and have an annual income of $10,000.

Stackoverflow doesn’t even require you to register to ask questions.

Alienate Your Community and You Have No Site

In this era of social sites (including crowd-sourced sites like Stackoverflow), community matters. A given solution can succeed and fail on the strength of it’s community. The same solution in different communities may succeed in one and fail in another by virtue of the different communities.

On a site like Stackoverflow the most important people are the ones who answer questions. This is a somewhat controversial opinion. The editors will disagree (or at least have a higher opinion of their worth). Don’t get me wrong: editing has value but no one celebrates the guy who edited The Great Gatsby, they celebrate F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Such communities over time can become insular (arguably incestuous). The poster child for this are Wikipedia editors, who went so far as to have a secret McCarthy-esque black list of "problem" users.

Lose your community and you lose your site. The Evil Hyphen Site has already done that.

Stackoverflow and Advertising

Originally Stackoverflow was quite light on for advertising, limited to a (mostly textual) right sidebar. The site started out looking much like this:

Now if you have less than 200 reputation it looks like this:

Interestingly, it only seems to look like this in Internet Explorer, even when I delete all my cookies. Firefox and Chrome (cookies deleted) still look like the original.

The difference? The right sidebar is “higher contrast” and there is an ad banner at the top of the question (and another further down). The top ads I believe were once text only, which is far less invasive. But Jeff has stated there won’t be any Flash or animated ads.

The latest controversy concerns the “offensive” advertising indicated to the left. Along with the "offensive" Adobe icons.

Call me crazy but I actually like these Adobe symbols on anything Flash/Flex related. It makes them easier to spot and I think it adds value. Spotting an Adobe icon is easier than finding the exact text that you’re after.

if you do find all questions tagged with one of these sponsored tags, you get this:

Is this too much? In my opinion? No. Others (naturally) disagree. Some to the point that they’ve written a script to remove such sponsored content.

Such activities, if done by a sufficiently large percentage of the userbase, undermine that site’s ability to generate revenue that pays for the site existing.

“But I Don’t Click on Ads Anyway!”

The first obvious rationalization is that basically ads don’t affect you. Bullshit. Ads do two things: they attempt to entice the user to take particular action, clicking through, buying something and so on. They also simply raise awareness of a brand, product or service. This is all about mind share. This one is subtle and hard to measure but if you see an ad or a logo often enough you’ll subconsciously recognize it.

“It’s Like Fast Forwarding Through Commercials”

No it isn’t. This defence was used in the ReplayTV lawsuit:

Yet, what the advertisers who are supporting TV are paying for is the potential that you might watch television ads. They know you might channel surf, get up and fart, go grab a smoke, or whatever. The challenge to the advertising agencies is to make commercials that you like to watch, that you want to watch. By editing out the commercials entirely, a priori, the networks can claim that ReplayTV in effect creates a derivative work that deprives them of the possibility that you might actually watch the ads. It is that possibility that generates the value of their ad space, and if something like ReplayTV were widely used, those numbers would drop, big time.

The other way to look at this is that if no one saw the ads, no sponsor would pay for them. If half the audience skipped the ads, it would be worth half as much to the sponsor and so on.

“It’s Already Loaded!”

Irrelevant. Something that’s loaded but never seen is of no value to an advertiser. Also, revenue from advertising can come from simply placing the ad, clicking through the ad or some combination of the two.

Adam Bellaire claims:

I don't think the SO guys are going to "not get paid" by a user script removing images and content after it's already loaded. Nobody can tell who or how many people are using this thing.

It could be argued that Adam believes advertisers are that clueless but it would be the height of naiveté. It’s far more likely that this is simply rationalisation.

“I Should Be Able to Opt Out.”

Adam once again pontificates:

…this is a completely opt-in script!

So what? Does it magically cost nothing to provide the service for you specifically? I must’ve missed the “This packet is intended for Adam” bit in the TCP/IP packet structure so the telcos know not to charge for it. I’ve got a good mind to write to W. Richard Stevens so he can issue an emergency addendum to his book.

“But This is ME!”

All of this comes down to what I call the BITM (“But this is ME!”) syndrome, closely related to NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”). Examples include “I realize there is a speed limit… but this is ME!”, “I realize that I should stop at this almost red light… but this is ME!” and so on. Once again with Adam:

Or do you mean to say that as long as some people see the sponsored ads, then it's okay? Because I agree with that,

To put it another way: I understand someone needs to pay for this, I just don’t see why it should be me.

Alex Papadimoulis succinctly rebuts this:

Ad blockers are like the fat bastards at the grocery store who take handful after handful of free samples. If everyone [Ed] did it, the system would collapse and everyone would lose out. We know it, they know it, and we all just roll our eyes as they stuff their face with cut-up hot dogs and go "whhaaaat?". When they try to justify it ("it doesn't say only one, not my fault they give it away!"), it just makes 'em look worse. As I always say, at least have the decency to admit you're a bastard

The Innate Sense of Fairness

People have an innate sense of fairness to the point it can be manipulated or predicted with neurochemistry. This can work for companies if they treat their users fairly or against them if they don’t.

EA released Spore with a nauseating and invasive DRM system that limited it to three activations (later changed to five). Microsoft tried the same thing with limited activations of OEM Vista. People naturally believe that if they buy something they should be able to reinstall it as many times as they want.

A lawyer may argue that you haven’t bought the software, you’ve bought a license to use it in a limited way. But we’re not talking what’s legal here. We’re talking what’s fair.

It’s this sense of fairness that will cause people to reject the underhanded tactics of the Evil Hyphen Site to get you to subscribe or pirate some piece of software they’ve bought that has run out of activations (or simply installs a rootkit allowing your system to be hacked). So I guarantee you that if the Jeff and Joel go too far with advertising the userbase will react. But we’re not there yet. Nowhere near it.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Sites cost money to develop, maintain and host. They have a right to earn revenue to cover their costs and make a return on the investment they’ve made (and risked). So what’s fair?

My personal opinion is that icons on tags are OK, sponsored links at the top are OK (if you have a problem with that I guess you don’t use Google or pretty much any other search engine) and the side bar is OK. I find the graphical ads littered throughout the question a bit much but then again I have more than 200 reputation so don’t see them.

For what it’s worth I think I’ve even clicked on a couple (Telerik and SpreadsheetGear spring to mind) of the many thousands I’ve no doubt seen but, as mentioned, such a low conversion rate is to be expected.

The euphemism “opt out” in this context is akin to “it’s OK to steal from the supermarket as long as no one else does it”. If you want good services like Stackoverflow to exist then on principle alone you should be supporting them.

Writing scripts to block ads is just selfish. What’s more if the ads offend you that much it suggests a certain irresponsibility, thoughtlessness, touchiness and intolerance that doesn’t speak well of your character.

Seriously, get a clue.


Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks for the shout out! You'll be happy to know that I am now browsing with all sponsored tags enlarged by three times, to make penance for my previous unethical behavior. Does that speak better for my character?

I am very concerned about your impression of my character, you see. Clearly someone who would write a 2000+ word blog post to decry a 2-line jQuery script must have highly developed ethics, particularly when the post concludes with "get a clue." I just count myself lucky that I was able to learn from you today!

Of course, I did feel a little better when Alex said to me: "Your contributions are greatly appreciated and outweigh any loss from you blocking ads, and I would much rather have you contributing and blocking ads, rather than non-contributing and not blocking ads. I'm speaking here entirely in generalities when it comes to ad blocking."


Vizier said...

Uh... sorry man. Totally not my responsibility to ensure SO, or any other site gets paid. If a tiny script on my machine blocks their ads, such is life for them. Maybe they shouldn't exist if their ad features are so flimsy. Maybe companies that actually make a product, like MS or Sun or Apple should have their own sites for posting questions. Oh wait, they do. They are free too.

a said...

Seriously, this is a long-winded and dumb essay. In your analysis value you fail to realize the obvious: StackOverflow is a site whose only content is generated by users. Why should the same users who generate the entire value of the site -- and I do mean, the entire value, StackOverflow has zero value without users -- be forced to suffer ads from those who would exploit their labor?

Unknown said...

Yeah, I'm an ad blocker, I'll admit it. I mainly do it because I have a slow connection at home, I'm easily distracted, and have bad language skills (I skimmed about 20% of your article).

I've managed to whittle my frequent sites down to a few that don't use annoying adds, and I find myself wanting a way to tell my ad-blocker to allow ads to show up on certain sites--like this one.

Perhaps what I want removes some of the 'crunchiness' from the internet. I can slough through endless annoyingly ad-ridden websites because I never see the ads. The worst offenders still get traffic, and the good sites don't get paid.

For stack overflow's sake, I'll turn off my ad-blocker for a week. I'll see how my habits adjust. If I can't take it, I'll resume by fat-bastardry. (Afterall as anonimity increases, so does bad behaviour)

Anonymous said...

I've listened to some of the SO podcasts, and Jeff has mentioned that sometimes he thinks there are bugs in the advertising related code because ads don't show up correctly. Then he realizes that he needs to turn his ad block off. If one of the creators of SO uses ad-block software, I don't see the problem with others using it.

Anonymous said...

If you don't like the ads protest by not visiting the site and letting the owners know about it, not by stealing the content using an adblocker.

People can rationalize stealing so easily.

Gordon said...

Did you mean "countercuLtural" instead of "countercuNtural"? Right now it just sounds dirty.

Anonymous said...

The idea that advertising is "free" to me is fundamentally flawed. That is, the idea that I incur no cost by exposing my psyche to images designed explicitly to manipulate it is clearly wrong. I don't feel like paying that price. Does that mean that shitty sites like Stack Overflow will have to fold and go away? A bloo bloo boo hoo so freaking what; I won't get access to the 99% wrong answers from a masturbatory "community" of nerd attention whores any more! What shall I do?

Anonymous said...

a said:
> Why should the same users who generate the entire value of the site -- and I do mean, the entire value, StackOverflow has zero value without users

Your claim that StackOverflow has zero value without users therefore users generate the entire value of the site is a non sequitur.
It's like saying a woman can't reproduce without a man, therefore the man adds all the value to the reproductive process.

Both the hosting site and the users add value.

Anonymous said...

"The idea that advertising is "free" to me is fundamentally flawed. That is, the idea that I incur no cost by exposing my psyche to images designed explicitly to manipulate it is clearly wrong."

So, your psyche is so "fundamentally" weak that you could be forever scarred by a banner ad? Or, god forbid, you would click on the ad, go to the site and become hopelessly addicted to it to the exclusion of all else in your life?

Wish I knew your name so I could never buy any product nor pay for any service you worked on.

I totally agree with this essay. Ads are a small price to pay, and it makes good sense. I never click on them, but I know they have a reason for existing. I have self control and self awareness. I can choose not to give a damn about a bit of screen real estate if there is some content I find interesting. In short, I have a brain.

silverlight said...


I just wanted to say, saw this post from Reddit, and I completely agree with you. If there's a site I enjoy, I have no problem viewing the ads for the site. In fact, I would say that they really are hardly any trouble at all, and on ocassion I might even click on one if it looks interesting. If the people who make a site that I enjoy can make a living off of that site through ads, and therefore work more on the site and perhaps make other sites that I will enjoy -- and on top of that the only thing that I have to "pay" is a little of my attention -- I'll gladly do it.

I'm glad that you made this post, but at the same time, you're wasting your time. Folks (like the ones who have left the comments above) aren't going to be persuaded by logic or your (or anyone's) words, they feel they have a "right" to get whatever they want in whatever way they want. The sad thing is that they don't realize that this exact attitude is what will lead a) to sites like SO being forced to charge a fee or b) figuring out a way to make the advertisements more prevalent so that they are unavoidable.

To the folks who keep saying that SO is worthless since the users generate all the content, until you create a similar site that is ad-free and pay the hosting and administrative costs of such a site, SO has great value, since the discussions on it could not happen without it. Not saying it can't be done ad-free, just challenging you to do so if you feel you can.

Well, that's about it, I won't waste anymore time. Thanks again Will, well put, and just know that although the minority on this issue may seem to be the most vocal, the vast majority of users are on your side.

Ryan Martin said...

The only people who have issues with business entities; be it an individual or company making money by strategically placing advertisements in their sites are PHP, Linux and some Apple folks.

That’s because they don't have a job, so they sit at home angry and complain about us good folks building software that sells. Making a profit is what the U.S. is all about. If you don’t like the ads then build your website and fill with great insightful nuggets of open source bull crap.

How are you gonna pay for hosting with no revenue, your paper route money?

gwenhwyfaer said...

"Sites cost money to develop, maintain and host. They have a *right* to earn revenue..."

Er, no, they don't. They have a right to *try*. Just like everyone else. If they choose a bad model, well - sucks for them, but it isn't the duty of the rest of us to carry them. If there *aren't* any good models, let's be honest about it and talk welfare.

But I am constantly amazed at how quickly those who seek to make a living from their intellects will slide into the presumption that they have a right not merely to try to earn that living, but to succeed as well. That ain't how markets work, people!

Anonymous said...

Yes, if everyone adopted ad blockers, the site would have to get a new revenue model.

This is okay. If people realize ads are effective, and chose to not have them manipulating them, and all economic models based on selling ads on websites fail, *this is a good thing*.

If everyone *doesn't do this* then the people who use ad blockers are going to be just fine, and the people who do not chose to avoid manipulation of advertising will be as they are now.

Veggie said...

I agree with the spirit of the essay, but it speaks words to me to see how hard people work just to avoid ads like this. Plus there is a very good point made in the comments about how the superfluous ad content weakens the user experience of a site. It seems that maybe the advertising industry should rethink how they advertise, being that their target audience hates them so much.

Jakewins said...

Something of an over-simplification on the micro-payments perhaps, but other than that I agree. I wish you would have been less provokative towards Adam though, obviously he was not able to handle that.

Are you seriously making the argument that we should close down web applications that don't have a separate source of income?

It costs the users near-nothing to generate that value, and the value would not be there unless Stack Overflow aggregated the collective information. In fact, because Stack Overflow aggregates the information, the users of the site are the main benefactors of it, beeing rewarded many times over for their efforts. It costs Stack Overflow money to perform the aggregation, and that money is made by displaying ads in the same way media has been for hundreds of years.

Anonymous said...

I liked the essay. I deal with ads this way: if a site has too many flashy ads, I don't go there again; if a site has well-placed and potentially helpful ads, I use it without an ad-blocker. SO is one of those that has some helpful links. The Adobe example is a great one. The best kind of advertising is intended to make a profit by helping the consumer, not duping one.

The problem people have with (especially targeted) advertising is shown by another Anonymous poster's comment above. People seem to think they're being "learned" and "manipulated" by advertising. My opinion on this is...if an advertisement actually makes you buy something you didn't want and had no use for, you didn't deserve the money you just blew anyway.

jason said...

"Sites cost money to develop, maintain and host. They have a *right* to earn revenue..."

Er, no, they don't. They have a right to *try*. Just like everyone else. If they choose a bad model, well - sucks for them, but it isn't the duty of the rest of us to carry them. If there *aren't* any good models, let's be honest about it and talk welfare.

So if a vending machine had a door on it where it was not too hard for you to reach up inside and grab a bag of chips without paying, that would be the vending machine company's problem and not yours? You wouldn't morally feel like you had stolen anything because they were too stupid to secure it well?

What about if you see a car with the keys in the ignition and the doors are unlocked. Does that mean you go up to it and say "Hey! Free Car!"?

Just because you are on the honor system doesn't mean it's not still stealing.

Anonymous said...

"If everyone [Ed] did it, the system would collapse and everyone would lose out."

So? Let the system collapse. I use flash block because animation that I don't request causes me pain (sometimes physically, blinking high contrast colors, anyone?). I sometimes use ad block because some ads are obnoxious and those advertisers deserve to be be punished.

Now tell me, why the fuck should I modify my behavior simply because YOU want to have more of something that YOU aren't even paying for (looking at ads is NOT paying for something).

I understand that you can think of ad paid-for sites as being a public good. And I understand that there's a whole lot of economics and law covering this topic. But usually the arguments for protecting these goods boil down to "society is better off with this good", and this is very dangerous. It's hard to quantify these kinds of statements, and even harder to argue with.

Tyler said...

I agree with William's arguments here. Even if a site is based 100% on user-generated content, it still costs money to run. Seeing an ad is a minuscule price to pay for that. I don't buy into this "oh no they're brainwashing me" crap. If you can't handle seeing a little ad you've got bigger issues to deal with.

One way to handle ad-blockers might be for publishers to display a special message for those using ad blockers. Something along the lines of "It seems you're using an ad blocker. While we support your choice to block advertisements, our site depends on revenue from those ads to continue operations. Please consider donating a small amount or removing your ad block software. Sincerely, Publisher."

That wouldn't do much for the bottom line, but it might help get the user to think about the effect of ad-blockers. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

"Wish I knew your name so I could never buy any product nor pay for any service you worked on." Said by Anonymous...

This blog post and the comments section are no different from any other. You are all a bunch of losers and no one's mind will ever be changed by your insipid rhetoric.

Nate said...

What about plugins for firefox such as Adblock Plus? Then people don't see the ads as all and therefore don't click them. Couldn't Things like ADP kill your model?

Unknown said...

Meh. Tempest in a teapot - a tiny handful of users were annoyed, and a tiny handful of users did something to not be annoyed anymore.

I think of advertising as bacteria. When a symbiotic relationship exists between advertisers and users, all is well - like the bacteria we all depend on to live, they're paying their way without destroying their host.

But when users are hindered or annoyed, something is wrong.

Ad blockers are the antibiotics of the web. A short-term fix for short-term problems.

And whether you're sucking down antibiotics, or your users are blocking ads, you have a problem! Be glad the users are still finding enough of value in the site to use it, and fix the underlying problem... before it kills you.

From what i can see, SO recognizes this: advertising becomes much less intrusive for those who put more than a little bit of time into using the site and garner a trivial amount of "reputation" as a result. This makes sense: not only are they providing value, but by virtue of the time they spend they see far more advertising than drive-by visitors anyway! So the attitude that, as valuable participants, they should see less advertising per page load is at least reinforced by the system itself!

The name-calling, the positioning of this trivial, minority disagreement as some grand battle... is childish and hopelessly naive. You're not going to make an annoyed user less annoyed by laying a guilt trip on them, and you're not going to convince a real programmer that they shouldn't implement a technical solution to what they see as problem if such a solution seems at all viable.

Harold Fowler said...

OMG no way dude that is just WAY ftoo cool!


Anonymous said...

Seems like this was the moral argument for tolerating advertising, invoking the Golden Rule. Bravo! Now, just convince drivers not to try to skip/cut off the queue on exit ramps off the highway!

Peter said...

FYI, W. Richard Stevens is dead, and has been so for over 10 years.

(Somewhat shocked that I'm the first to point this out.)

Anonymous said...

I like the analogy of the "fat bastards at the grocery store".

Awhile back, I noticed a little box on Slashdot that stated, "As our way of thanking you for your positive contributions to Slashdot, you are eligible to disable advertising."

Well, that's very nice of them to give me the option, but I actually DO look at the ads (and even click some of them) because I want the site to survive. That is my positive contribution.

I don't care if S.O. uses ads. I'll do whatever I can to monetize that site because it is so useful and valuable. I'd even click a donate button if they had one.. but I don't even see one on the site.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the psyche poster. I've purchased software before just to get the ad-free version.

Anonymous said...

I have no problem whatever with ads, but the feedback I give every time (Helloooo Hotmail!) is make the damn things load fast!

Anonymous said...

Joel's ads don't bother me, nor do google's text based ones. But I have to block flash ads because otherwise my computer freezes up, browser crashes, etc. Turning off flash altogether makes youtube stop working, so I do selective blocking. I will continue to do this. Companies that want be to view their ads can stop using flash based ads. With HTML 5 things will move to css/canvas animations, at which point I will write blockers to filter all that crap out as well.

Anonymous said...

advertisers should be happy they're at least saving badwidth (costs?) by not serving their ads to users for whom there's obviously no "potential" of a conversion with.

William Shields said...

It's worth noting that it wasn't my intent to "have a go" at Adam. His many comments simply typified that line of thinking. It does seem like he's trying to bait a response from me though, which is interesting. I guess the "fame" of being the poster child for ad blocking isn't all it cracked up to be.

ZetaPrime said...

God, what a lame ass collection of crybabies. IF YOU DON'T LIKE THE ADDS DON'T COME BACK! Wow, it's just that simple, I for one won't miss your Darwin award asses.

William Shields said...

As for ad blockers and Flash ads I will say this:

I use Chrome 3 and Firefox 3.5. Chrome doesn't have Flash installed, Firefox does. Firefox has it pretty much because of Youtube but Chrome is my usual browser.

Other than that I think the only ads I've gone out of my way to block are anything that opens a new window but those are fair game imo.

Che said...

The only solution to this problem for me is a service which allows me to pay for content whether that is a movie, music, a forum etc.

I don't think I will ever remove my ad blocker. The annoyance and distractions of ads are too great. I am genuinely shocked when I use a browser without a blocker these days at the intrustive nature of the ads and that more users don't use a blocker.

Obviously I realise that the content creator/provider needs to be paid. If enough people behave as I do eventually there will be far less content.

Maybe the content creators/providers should get off there asses and provide their customers with the price point and delivery mechanism that we are demanding.

In my view the writing has been on the wall for almost a decade. The customer is in charge now and holds the power in the relationship.

Give us what we want, for the price we want, when we want it and you'll make money.

I suspect most of us will keep stealing until the content creator/providers work this out and the appropriate market equilibrium with respect to supply, demand and price is arrived at.

Anonymous said...

Some advertising is just rude (not neccessarily on stackoverflow), and deserve to be blocked. And I have no qualms about doing so. This includes ads that misrepresent, that are flashy and jittery saying you are the 10,000 visitor, ads that automatically redirect your browser to another website, ads that block the view of the website until you submit to their demand or ads that do not have a way to close or remove readily with a mouse click.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the people who are like, "I'll visit the site and block the ads so HA!" (Gwenhwy, e.g.) You like the site, evidently, but you resent them trying to make money?

It's like punching your mom in the face. "What do I need that old bag for? She already birthed me."

jfSebastion said...

takes work to maintain the site. takes work for the users to post answers. what's fair? since both parties contribute to the value, neither should have to pay the other.

ShopZipCode said...

Business owners should be thankful for the free ads they're able to post on the web. Free advertisement is still advertisement.

Anonymous said...

A more refined version of your "but it's ME" principle is the "You can't force me to, so go fuck yourself". I subscribe to that particular camp myself.

Anonymous said...

I can always block your bullshit ads with certain Firefox add-ons.

Marcus said...

They could just go the route that ArsTechnica went...

Permanently ban people that use an ad blocker.

It's probably more trouble than it's worth, as I don't know how many people actually use Ad blockers. But, I suspect the visitor profile of Stackoverflow has a higher rate of blocking than your average site.

If you think that you have an ethical right to remove the ads, you should also think that the site operator has an ethical right to block you. Moreover, since ad blocks can affect conversion rates, ad sales, etc... you could say that the operator has a moral imperative to block those users, to protect the company. If this was a non-profit, I might have a different opinion (unlikely).

Either position is extreme, but this is a slippery slope.

But, this might be a minority of visitors to the site... but it's a vocal minority. I'd probably just leave them alone, but track them. Joel is all about capturing data, right?

Unknown said...

I use ad-blockers and this is the way I see it: free and ad-free is the price I'm willing to pay. Most of the web sites trying to remain profitable on the Internet are not valuable to me. The sites are useful, but superfluous. I don't need them. You make something worth spending my money on and I'll gladly pay.

In short: if I had to choose between watching ads or losing the site, I would choose the later almost every time.

For what it's worth, the only sites I can think of that I would pay/watch ads for are:

gmail (would probably set up my own server) (or similar service, again I'd probably roll my own)

and that's about it.

Anonymous said...

Of course it has it’s detractors (most of whom seem to lurk on reddit)

Speling faile

Billy Korando said...

So what if everybody followed your same mentality? That means this site, wikipedia, all the social media sites, youtube, flickr, nearly 99% of the internet would close because those who run those sites would be unable to afford it. Maybe you should read the "But this is me!" part of the article again and you will see the flaw in your logic.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you have ads on your blog? I got it for free. Haha.

Murat Ozgur Kaymakci said...

very good article, thanks

Felzix said...

Blocking ads is not stealing. Period. Ad-driven sites follow the gifting model. Content is gifted with the expectation that the receiver will observe an ad. If the receiver doesn't reciprocate, stop gifting. The difference is subtle because we're trained to think of things as purely free (like love) or monetary transactions, but those are just gifting strategies with extreme expectations.

The "psyche poster" has a good point that another anon totally missed. Ads invade ones mind. They distract both as they are being observed and later when close (in the mental sense) thoughts are thought. This detracts from concentration, which is valuable for some people.

Felzix said...

Ah, also, good article. Some points are weak and such, as other posters have pointed out, but I think you did a good job of supporting ads. Though I doubt ads will be a viable source of revenue in the future as ad-blocking becomes more wide-spread. Perhaps something more like iphone apps will be adopted: free demos. This way desirable products are purchased with little risk to consumers. Since this means closer to perfect knowledge, the market becomes more efficient.

Bill said...

I've never heard of ad blockers. Cool. Gonna check it out.

Makes me cringe when somebody tells me I'm being immoral for not giving them money.

Anonymous said...

"They also simply raise awareness of a brand, product or service. This is all about mind share. This one is subtle and hard to measure but if you see an ad or a logo often enough you’ll subconsciously recognize it." I can't for the life of me understand how you can use this argument to defend ads... this is the very reason why I stopped watching TV, why I installed an ad-blocker, ... Maybe it's a European thing, but I really don't like to be brainwashed!

Anonymous said...

A clue? That sites costs money to run and therefore I simply must look at ads if you decide so?


It costs money to receive email too, but there's no need to look at ads for that. I paid money to read this article so I decide you have to look at my ads.

Usenet and mailing lists worked perfectly well. No one paid for that. If you build a site people like better, good for you, but you don't suddenly own the community.

Anonymous said...

@Billy Korando: last time I checked Wikipedia runs without ads... If they can do it, why not the other sites?

gwenhwyfaer said...

jason: The honour system is the wrong analogy. Busking is a closer fit, given the nature of HTTP distribution; and it's entirely ridiculous (although I'm sure it won't stop some here) to claim that someone walking past a busker - or even hanging around the spot the busker usually plays in hoping to catch a listen - without paying is somehow stealing music. The busker has already decided to be there, unilaterally, without precondition. He isn't bartering music for beer tokens, he is giving his performance as a gift in the hope of eliciting a financial reciprocation.

Like it or not, that's *exactly the same model* as advertising-supported web space - both technically (the HTML for the page gets delivered regardless of whether the user will subsequently fetch the adverts - necessarily, when the URLs for the adverts are on the webpage) and morally (however much SO's management are hoping for recompense, they're still delivering content without that condition, and *they know it*).

Now, by all means complain that unless enough people watch the ads or toss the busker a coin, the gift will go away and be missed. But you have to recognise that ad-funded websites are not operating in an economic climate conducive to gift cultures - quite the opposite, in fact; if your "business" model is based upon gift reciprocity, you are running a charity, not a business - and when you claim that listening to the busker without paying, or reading the site without the ads, is "immoral" you need to be explicit about which moral principles, in your consideration, have been violated. So far, I haven't seen that clarity.

gwenhwyfaer said...

"advertising-supported web space" => "an advertising-supported webSITE"

Anonymous said...

"But this is ME" -> "BTIM", not "BITM".

Anonymous said...

Minor nit, viewing content without viewing the adverts is not stealing. Stealing deprives the owner of the item. A beter anaogue for adblockers would be copyright infringement (Creating a derived work without adverts).

Personally I have no issue with this. In theory people should /like/ looking at adverts (People telling you about things you want that will make your life better). If they don't for some reason then perhaps you are Doing It Wrong?

Unknown said...

I don't want the ads. They are unsolicited, often abusive and detrimental to user experience, not to mention privacy concerns (

What's with this bitching? You threaten to block me when I block your ads, you think it's fair? Okay, please do.
Blocking ads isn't always easy. It could be made simpler for everyone. Only if it matters of course. So let's add an http header specifying whether I accept ads. If I don't you either don't show them (and account for it in the design of your site) or show me a message saying that you need to make a living. If the site's not worth it for me, that's it. If I care enough, maybe I will consent to viewing ads. If I'm a regular maybe I'd prefer paying some money. Or earn some score in case of SO. Or something else... I wouldn't have to use sophisticated tools, it would be plain and simple, all or nothing. We could take this to the author of NoScript extension who's got burnt badly on ad blocking issues.

But if site owners are comfortable with status quo because there's enough people watching ads then please STFU, mind your own business and don't impose arbitrary ethical obligations on strangers.

Walter McGrain said...

I've always felt that the sort of person that would respond to advertising is the same sort of person that would not know to install an AdBlocker in the first place.

In this regard, an ad-blocker serves as a sort of Darwinian filter. Ads are even more targeted at the hopeless boobs who are affected by them the most - and bandwidth is saved for those would ignore them.

brad dunbar said...

I LOVE the free sample analogy. That's exactly what ad blocking is. "Yea, somebody pays for it, but I won't."

Also, ad blocking is completely at odds with itself. Blocking Ads is saying "I want this content and only this content so badly that I'm willing to cut off the author's means to produce it."

Gav said...

Fantastic essay, people need to wake up. The protesters sound like spoiled little brats.

me said...

@brad dunbar
Suppose I want this content and don't want some distracting not-really-content shit now what is your solution?

Unknown said...


You are correct that it is not your responsibility to ensure that SO gets paid. This is why the people who do own the site have taken steps to provide a revenue stream. Since it is your computer, you have the capacity to opt out, but if you bend the system far enough that this revenue stream isn't profitable, SO's owners will have to pursue an alternate route. You then, actually, do become indirectly responsible (in the sense that I---another user---can blame you personally for forcing the developer's hand and adding some other, probably more onerous, revenue generation channel).

While other vendors do provide comment systems, the value-add of SO is that they pool the resources in one place. I know the hell of trying to figure out a problem in trying to run EA's Spore with my NVIDIA graphics card on WINDOWS... dreaming up the forums that could contain an answer for my question (and dealing with their usually-incompatible formats and features) is a less-necessary headache now that SO is in town. I wouldn't want to give up SO and go back to the old system of fishing through a dozen forums. Perhaps you have a clever idea of how to integrate these disparate Q&A systems? If so, I recommend you try to implement it (though I am unwilling to offer you any capital to encourage it, as I already have SO for those needs).

@a: The idea that all of the value from SO comes from the users is mistaken. The value comes from a combination of the users and the aggregation network itself. To re-iterate my point to Vizier, SO provides a uniform Q&A space in what was previously dissociated and harder-to-find knowledge. That's a value add. Saying it isn't is like saying "The value of public libraries only comes from the book donors; why should they have to pay fines if a book gets stolen? They're just reclaiming value they put into the system!"

John said...

Did you make a point here? I failed to notice anything.

Marco said...

A couple of things strike me about the conversation going on in these comments.

First, I would bet money that many of those following the "gifting" model would raise hell if all of their favorite sites did actually start blocking them because they didn't look at ads. They would call it unfair and pick up the "content wants to be free" mantra. I don't agree with everything the author says, but I agree that you guys are just being selfish and then trying to rationalize it after the fact.

Second, I was waiting for a particular argument that never seemed to surface. I use ad blockers (FlashBlock to be exact), but it's not because I find the ads annoying or unacceptable. It's simply because the current trend of big display flash ads makes Firefox run like complete trash. I was so amazed at how much difference it made to run with no flash that it completely justified "stealing" from content authors. I admit to being a bastard, but I'm pawning it off on browser makers :) Fix Firefox, and I'll happily view your ads.

(Yes, Chrome is better, but there's no stable Mac version and deficient web dev tools)

Anonymous said...

So much noise from such a small part of the community, almost like they do care just a little about acting like assholes. Fear not, a piss weak contrived argument can quickly abate such feelings.

Yes, the rest of us feel like you're entitled to a more delicious piece of the pie. No really. I think you could find a really deep connexion with the 5 year olds at the playground, and they're not assholes.

If the ads bother you so much then go somewhere else. Why this need to create elaborate arguments for why you're still here?

Unknown said...

Nice writeup, dear. Yes the content of the site is user generated but they need money to feed their ids and keep SO working. I've never seen ads in questions but the side bar ads are okay with me. Yes I'm little annoyed with the sponsored tags. They make easy to spot Flash/Fex related question because at the time there is only Adobe icon out there, suppose if MS come to sponsor SO and put Icon on all tags related to their technologies? It will be a complete mess.

Unknown said...

Very good points, I totaly agree with you.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add one more argument against blocking ads:

If you were the author of a product, you'd want people to see your advertising. You want the people who might benefit from your product to know it exists.

This is no defence for obtrusive, distracting ads - they're awful. But informative ads that get the message out about good products shouldn't be seen as an insult!

For my own part, I actually CLICK on ads now and then. If someone puts in the effort required to pique my interest, I will hear what they have to say.

But for that I will block ads that are highly distracting or performance suckers.

Anonymous said...

Heh - "Jimmy Hoffa".

I'm Herman Munster and I live at 1313 Mockingbird Lane in Mockingbird Heights.

Anonymous said...

William Shields - "Other than that I think the only ads I've gone out of my way to block are anything that opens a new window but those are fair game imo."

Really? What's your justification for blocking pop-up ads, and why is it so distinct from the rationalizations you are trying to refute in your post? said...

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free advertising said...

If we do our thing with no intention then we will definitely get the expected results.Instead if we are not at all concerned about the success of others and dont want others to get the results for their work, always preparing to pull their legs then we will be harming our own success at the same time.

Unknown said...

Only till my natural death could I tell which of what I have been doing is right or wrong, so now I have to try to do well in everything, and then wait to die a natural death.


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