The Blocked Web

The use of ad blocking software went up a whopping 30% in 2016. Their popularity, particularly among web-savvy millennials, has been on the rise for several years and shows no signs of slowing down. PageFair, a company that studies the digital landscape says in their 2017 Global Adblock Report that 11% of the global internet population (using 615 million global devices) are now actively blocking ads. Anyone who works in the digital advertising industry might be slightly alarmed by these numbers.

Many high profile web sites have begun to institute rather drastic measures to recoup lost advertising revenues. Visit Wired or the LA Times with an ad blocker enabled browser lately? You’ll be greeted with an ad block wall politely asking you to deactivate your ad blocker if you want to continue consuming content.

Looks like the free ride is over. The days of free-to-consume news appear to be coming to a close on the web. Newspapers, faced with declining print circulation, are moving more resources to their digital editions. Quality journalism cost money. The free access/ad supported model clearly isn’t sustainable in the face of growing ad blocker usage.
Partial paywalls like on The Globe & Mail provide free access to some articles while restricting access to ‘premium’ content with the aim of converting the casual readers into monthly paid subscribers.
But getting people to pay for news and infotainment online seems to be a slow uphill battle as evident when you consider 74% of ad block users say they leave websites with ad block walls.

The Ruthlessness of Navigation Apps


The Washington Post published an eye-opening article examining the downside effects of popular navigation apps. Drivers armed with apps like Waze and Google Maps are able to very effectively thwart the ill effects of modern commuter hell: road closures, accidents, and traffic jams —all previously hidden obstacles prior to mobile networks. Sharing information with one another drivers can react to changing traffic conditions in real time finding the quickest route along their given commute.

The ruthless efficiency of waze for instance can be problematic for once tranquil neighbourhoods inundated with excessive traffic volume (and noise/pollution) on streets that were never designed to function as main thoroughfares. Residents are getting the short end of the stick. But the makers of these apps don’t seem to empathize with the homeowners predicament. Attempts among residents to divert traffic away from their streets by ‘gaming’ routes with false information are swiftly removed by the app developers. Other ‘wazers’ logged-in to the app and driving in the vicinity are also quick to debunk fake reports of traffic bottlenecks or closures. For homeowners seeking peace and quiet it’s a losing battle.

The other perhaps unintended consequence of these navigation apps is the growing incidence of distracted driving. There’s no denying the distraction inducing effects associated with using these apps while behind the wheel —and now apparently studies confirm talking on a hands-free phone is equally distracting as picking up a device. It’s incredible to think how many technological distractions already exist in the modern automobile, and now we’re adding to it with our phones.

As a motorcyclist who routinely commutes in to work most days I find this trend really concerning. Not a day goes by that I’m not either cut-off or nearly smashed by a driver with their head buried down in their phone texting away. Is it any wonder the number of traffic accidents involving distracted drivers, particularly Uber and Lyft drivers, is on the rise?

The Web We’re Losing

Noted Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, once imprisoned for his “web activities” back in 2008, laments of the Web’s gradual descent towards a centralized flow of information and ideas. In a piece written for The Guardian Derakhshan points the finger squarely at popular social networks –Facebook, Instagram, et al– who he feels are killing the web by reeling us in to their close-walled ecosystems, places where people are increasingly spending more of their time online. Derakhshan writes:

We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication – nodes and networks and links – toward one that is linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.
I miss when people took time to be exposed to opinions other than their own, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters.

Here in Toronto the Star, our largest daily newspaper, recently closed down comments and decided to push conversations among readers to Twitter (this disappointing trend is happening elsewhere too). When did moderating readers’ comments become a liability? Perhaps this is symbolic of the end of the Web as an interactive medium. By all means consume but please resist the urge to participate and share your voice.

Vibrant discussion threads — news.ycombinator.com is a great example — are a telling barometer of strong user engagement, whereas analysis of click-throughs and page views, based on the widespread use of click bots, tell us little about audience participation.

Consider for a moment a future version of the Web resembling Maciej Ceglowski’s computer game analogy:

The Web as Minecraft —an open world with simple pieces that obey simple rules. The graphics are kind of clunky, but that’s not the point, and nobody cares.
In this vision, you are meant to be an active participant, you’re supposed to create stuff, and you’ll have the most fun when you collaborate with others. The rules of the game are simple and don’t constrain you much. People create astonishing stuff in Minecraft.

. . .

It’s somewhat disheartening to think of the modern Web in terms of a series of closed networks or tiered pay-to-play information silos (I’m looking at you Facebook) rather than the vast open hyperlinked network that Tim Berners-Lee had originally set forth.

Update: January 3.2016
It would be hypocritical of me to publish this post with comments disabled, so I’ve turned them back on. Let’s hope the absurd comment spam doesn’t come back.