18 November 2004

Aggregate this!

Tom Tomorrow has his panties in a bunch over the outrageous behavior of Internet users. He was shocked this week to discover that some people were reading his published web log using special purpose web log browsing software (aka “news aggregators”), rather than the software he wants them to use (a web browser). Worse still, the miscreants were skipping the ads! Quel horreur!

It rather reminds me of the CEO of Turner Broadcasting, who declared that skipping TV ads using fast forward was “stealing the programming”.

Here’s the deal: if you publish or broadcast something, you don’t get to control how people choose to read or watch it.

If I want to watch Cartoon Network on an HDTV and chop the logo off the bottom of the screen, I can. If I choose to read AOL Time Warner’s web sites using a non-AOL web browser, I can. If I want to block your ads or change the layout of your web site using a local style sheet, tough luck, you can’t stop me.

I think the argument that it’s rude for me to skip TV or web ads is ridiculous. However, you may disagree, in which case here are some rules which may soon appear in the Tom Tomorrow Guide to Etiquette.

  • When viewing television, politely sit and watch every TV ad. Do not go to the bathroom or fetch a snack. If you must use a VCR to time-shift, do not fast forward through the ads. What, you expect the TV companies to let you watch that programming as you wish?

  • Make sure you are careful to read every ad on every page of the newspaper. If you must throw away a section of the paper, be sure to read every advertisement first. Otherwise, you are automatically skipping a big chunk of ads which helped pay for the newspaper you enjoyed, and that would be quite literally stealing content from the newspaper, wouldn’t it?

  • Make sure you open and read every single piece of junk postal mail you receive. The postal service you use is heavily subsidized by the money it makes from bulk advertising mail. To toss junk mail in the trash automatically without opening and examining the ads would be taking advantage of something without paying for it. That would be stealing, wouldn’t it?

  • When you’re listening to the car radio, never change the station during an ad break. The ads pay for the radio transmitter and the electricity used to broadcast the music. If they couldn’t advertise to you, why, the radio station would go away entirely. So if you skip the ads by pushing a button, you’re obviously human scum.

  • You know those advertising inserts in magazines? They’re there because the publisher wants you to have to look at them and move them aside to read the whole article. If you rip them out so you can just read the entire article without seeing the ad, well, you’re stealing. What, you want the content handed to you on a silver platter?

Meanwhile in the real world…

People skip ads all the time. Sometimes manually, sometimes automatically, but mostly without thinking or even registering the presence of the ad. Our daily environment is so ad-infested at this point that even the advertisers are admitting that it is becoming harder and harder to ‘reach’ people (where by ‘reach’ they often mean ‘interrupt’, ’distract’ or ‘annoy’).

If people’s desires and behavior make advertising ineffective, that’s just tough luck for advertising. If technology makes it easy for people to skip ads and people want to skip ads, then people will skip ads. You can rant all you like, but the world was not designed for the express purpose of advertising, and there’s no guarantee it will stay amenable to your marketing messages.

In fact, the Internet was never designed to be friendly to advertising. The fact that you can advertise on the web at all is accident. The Internet existed before web advertising, and will probably still exist in some form when capitalism has collapsed on itself and mass marketing is something kids are asked to read about in history textbooks. If my skipping ads breaks your business model, you need to find a new business model.

And now it’s disclosure time. I’m one of those evil RSS-readin’ web-aggregatin’ freeloading varmints. Except that I have bought a bunch of Tom Tomorrow books, and I wear a baseball cap with Sparky the Wonder Penguin embroidered on the front, purchased from you-know-who’s web site. (As an aside: I wish Ted Rall was still selling embroidered caps in custom sizes, I could totally go for an El Busho cap too, but One Size Does Not Fit All.)

I think I’ve demonstrated that I’m responsible and adult enough to make my own moral choices, so I don’t particularly appreciate being told that I’m “human scum” because I choose not to look at ads every day, and only go browse them when I feel like getting a new T-shirt or some bumper stickers.

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