The 'tragedy of the commons' describes a situation in which individuals, acting independently and rationally in accordance with their own interests, ultimately end up destroying the resource that sustains them all. Think of many farmers all letting their sheep graze on a piece of common land. As long as everyone controls their flocks, the grass doesn't get totally destroyed and so it grows back and keeps feeding them all. But if one farmer realises he can get fatter sheep by eating just a bit more, and so does another, and then they all do, the grass all dies, and all the sheep go hungry.
In my book, Paid Attention, I suggest that we should consider human attention a finite and valuable resource, one that powers the media-industrial complex, the world wide web, and the technology giants of our time. As a resource, it is approaching a Malthusian moment, and it's all our own fault.
When advertising went digital, it wasn't long before technology and finance guys found their way into the industry, creating ad tech intermediaries. From the very beginning of digital advertising, with the creation of ad serving and ad networks, digital disaggregated the advertising from the content. All the media arguments of resonance and environment and fit evaporated in an evergrowing stream of digital impressions.
It got out of control. Each additional pixel or cookie won't cause attention collapse by itself, but together they are leading us to Adblocalypse because one will be the straw that breaks the consumer's back. Howard Stern just promoted ad blocking technology on his radio show in the US, leading to an immediate increase in downloads. Apple is putting ad-blocking tech inside the new mobile web browser and iOS 9.
Generally, advertising experiences on mobile are terrible, mimicking the worst of the desktop web, with intrusive popups blocking the content. The user experience has been allowed to degrade too far. According to a technical analysis by Rob Leathern, when you load the mobile version of the New York Post, the content comes along with 900 other HTTP calls, and your full IP address is given out nearly 300 times in pixel syncs, where dozens of ad and tracking networks exchange info about you.
The data load increases by many multiples because of ads and tracking. As VC David Pakman recently wrote, "the idea that the mobile web is a credible channel through which to reach consumers is largely disproven at this point". The mobile web experience is bad, so we use apps instead, only clicking out to use an actual browser when we hit a paywall and need incognito mode. So, both monetisation models are not working for content companies, and only Facebook, Google and Twitter have any real chance of making mobile advertising money.
As ad blockers become more common and easier to use, more people are using them. What's more, people's tolerance of advertising, their tacit acceptance of the value exchange of advertising, that it pays for or subsidises content, degrades in parallel with how much digital media they consume. It starts with ad blocking on their mobiles, but then it seems to make sense to ban all outdoor advertising for the same reason, as has now happened in São Paulo and Chennai, in what The Guardian has called a 'global movement to ban billboards'. David Ogilvy would have approved. He once said that "man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard". Howard Gossage also claimed to hate them, because they are the only medium that we have "no freedom of choice" over consuming.
And perhaps there's the point, the glimmer of hope. Consent. When you pick up a magazine, you understand and accept the advertising, you do not agree to being followed across every other magazine you will ever read, and into every shop you go to, and sharing what you bought. It's too much, it's rude, obnoxious, and the audience, from whom we derive all our value, has started to get angry and turn us off. Some CEOs have recently suggested that publishers should take legal action against the ad blocking companies. We can't sue our way out of this.
But if we remind ourselves, our clients and our partners that our attention is precious, that it is valuable and should be handled with respect, maybe we have a chance. If we can remind people about the value exchange, and actually balance it out, moderate the appetites of ad tech, think about how we can deliver value alongside messaging, maybe we won't kill the golden goose.