Ryan WhyteAdblocking. The internet is up in arms over it yet again and there’s enough misdirected rage to fill a mosh pit. People don’t like the idea they’re being “tracked” online and are sick and tired of terrible banner ads ruining their web experience.

Image Source: Chrome Web Store

I get it, I really do. In this age of Snowden, NSA surveillance and advertising hyper-saturation, societies’ collective patience with the advertising industry is wearing paper-thin. The thing is, you actually want to be tracked and you really do want to see ads, because the alternative is so much worse. Yes, a lot of the ads you’re seeing are absolute garbage, but ads allow businesses to offer tremendously useful services to their users for free. Sure you’re the “product” if you’re not paying for something, but what exactly is wrong with that?

The first thing people get wrong about digital advertising is this idea that they’re being “tracked.” Yes, advertisers are using cookies to track where you go and what you do online, but this data is anonymized and used in the aggregate, never on an individual basis. This isn’t “Man Hunter” on the internet though, as there is literally no digital advertising company anywhere in the world that can pull up your “profile” and see all the websites you’ve visited everything that you’ve done online. It just doesn’t work that way. Sure some database somewhere has your unique ID associated with certain sites and online actions, but that data is only accessible as part of a larger data set used in the aggregate for advertising targeting.

Nobody is sitting at a desk going “Whoa, Dave’s been to a lot of shoe sites lately, I should show him an ad for shoes.” It’s a lot more like “I have shoes I want to sell, so I’ll target people who have been to a lot of shoes sites lately.” Our hypothetical Dave then gets lumped in with all the other people going to shoe sites and sees ads for shoes. Dave’s privacy hasn’t been invaded and in end he sees an ad that’s more relevant to his interests.

So what are our options then? The first is that everybody sees ads for shoes whether they care about shoes or not. We go back to the old way of doing things from the days of print media where everyone saw the same ads. This meant that 90% of the ads you’d see when reading a newspaper were for things you had absolutely no interest in. Yes, behavioural targeting isn’t perfect yet, and sometimes the ads you see still aren’t the most relevant to your interests, but preventing sites from tracking you is only going to make this worse.

The other alternative is an internet without ads. Sure that sounds good, but in reality it would be awful. Imagine if every website you visited came with a fee. Even if those fees were only a few dollars a month, they would add up quickly. I visit a couple dozen websites on a routine basis and visit a few dozen more a few times a month. Let’s say even if I only paid a $3 a month for the sites I routinely visited, I’d easily be looking at bills of $60-$100 a month, or $720-$1200 a year. Want to read this article about water on Mars? Want to watch this cat video on YouTube? That’ll be $1. Sure a dollar here or a dollar there doesn’t seem like a lot, but it will all add up. Imagine adding another bill, probably around the same amount as your phone bill today, for “Content” on the internet. You’re still paying for data at home and on your phone, but now you’re paying potentially hundreds of dollars a month for the stuff you used to get for free.

The other problem with an internet without ads is that it just wouldn’t work. People are used to getting content for free, and so far only a few venerated old publications like the New York Times have been able to make paywalls work. Imagine if Buzzfeed tried to charge you for a subscription. Most people just wouldn’t do it, and then we’d be living in a world where upstart content creators would never have a chance to build an audience (though a world without Buzzfeed might not be that bad really).

Advertising also allows social networks like Facebook to reach such massive scale, which is actually a really good thing for its users as the more people who’re on Facebook, the more useful it becomes. If people had been forced to pay for Facebook in the beginning, Facebook wouldn’t even exist today as the vast majority of people would have been unwilling to pay for it.

So yes, most of the ads we see are poorly targeted garbage, but the answer isn’t to kill advertising. The answer is to make it better which, not so coincidentally, is exactly what we’ve set out to do.