Peace Out, Peace

I'm never on Twitter when stuff like this goes down (Marco pulled Peace from the App Store less than 48 hours after is entrance)
I’m never on Twitter when stuff like this goes down (Marco pulled Peace from the App Store less than 48 hours after is entrance)

If you’re at all plugged in to the Apple blogosphere, you will have heard by now that the internet-famous Instapaper creator, Marco Arment, abruptly pulled his latest effort from the App Store, a content blocker called Peace.

Arment stated that he felt it not right to afford users the ability to block advertisements when doing so could potentially—and in no small way—negatively impact the fiscal situation of smaller publishers:[1]

Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.

Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. This approach is too blunt, and Ghostery and I have both decided that it doesn’t serve our goals or beliefs well enough. If we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required than what I can bring in a simple iOS app.

After finally getting around to reading his post and some of the other link-to posts, this is the best I could do to summarize what happened regarding Peace:

  • Marco originally made a content blocker because why not, and because most ads suck
  • Marco’s content blocker was a hit, and made him a decent chunk of money in the first 24 hours in the Store
  • Marco began to feel like he had to justify some 1.0 decisions
  • Marco thought more about it, and decided that the “all or nothing” approach to content blocking just wasn’t “granular enough”
  • So Marco pulled Peace from the App Store
  • And everyone on Twitter threw a fit

I suppose the next episode of ATP will be a chance for Marco to elaborate further?

What should we make of all this?

Again, at the time of Peace’s removal, it was at the top of the Paid App Store charts. And after Peace was pulled, it was at the forefront of the Apple circles as well. Although that may not be the case for long, rest assured: in short order, another content blocker will take Peace’s place.

iOS 9 content blockers, aplenty.
iOS 9 content blockers, aplenty.

Despite which side of the content blocking argument you find yourself, it is undeniable that the issue is not a simple matter of black and white.

Ghostery posted just as much in a blog post following Peace’s removal:

We and Marco arrived at the decision at the same time. From the Ghostery side, this was an eye opening experiment. Both we and Marco feel that the way Peace was being used compromised the neutrality that Ghostery is built on.

Specifically, the black and white, all on/all off approach to content blocking in Peace ran counter to our core belief that these aren’t black and white decisions. With the currently limited flexibility of the user experience, we both felt it best not to continue to sell or support the app. Ghostery is based on giving the consumer the choice as to what they block and when. Ghostery doesn’t block ads or any other content by default. That’s too subjective a call. If there are objective measures for what types of tracking should be blocked, then that’s an option we’ll pursue. Right now, however, we didn’t feel that we had the mix right in Peace. Marco agreed.

Matthew Butterick, whose Practical Typography resource/website I have written about previously, also had some things to say on the subject. He believes that simply enabling content blockers is the wrong approach, because it will only lead to more ads and/or an overall worse browsing experience:

I agree that web ads are getting more intrusive—but are ad blockers the solution, or the cause? This arms race has been going on for years already.

On that view, we can already predict what effect this next round of ad blocking will have on the web at large: it will make things worse, not better. Did you think publishers would abandon ads en masse? “Finally, we see the error of our ways!”

Of course not. Instead, they’ll simply redirect their attention toward whichever readers still aren’t using an ad blocker. In turn, the writing and content on these sites will increasingly be targeted to these readers. Web ads are now a form of regressive taxation. As a result, the average quality of the web—design, writing, everything—will continue to suffer.

In the end, the conversation about ad blocking is really a conversation about how we create a sustainable model for web publishing.

Am I saying you should refrain from using an ad blocker? No. But consider offsetting your act of disobedience with an act of affirmative support. Vote with your wallet. Put some money behind the writing you like—whether it’s a website or a magazine or a newspaper. “But such-and-such website won’t let me pay for it.” Then discover something new. As a reader, what’s important is not where you put your money, but rather that you remain an economic participant in the publishing industry. Because otherwise you’re a freeloader. And when the writing you like is gone, you’ll have nothing to complain about.

I’m all for this. Pay the sites you frequent directly. If you value their content, why not pay for it? We value the content of a meal when we go out to eat. And guess what? We pay for that. Why should digital content be any different?

The problem with that strategy is that many sites simply do not provide a way to contribute directly. This may seem like an excuse, but spend 10 minutes on the web and tell me how many sites you land on have a /donate or /contribute slug? I’d venture not many.

It’s not your fault—publishers big and small are not set up for that type of business model. The majority of popular websites and blogs monetize via ad networks. Until they change their ways, I can’t see anything wrong with using content blockers globally. If you value a site and believe their ads aren’t annoying of off-putting, whitelist that site in your blocker.

I really think it’s as simple as that.

In the latest episode of Exponent, Ben Thompson and James Allworth discussed the history of ad networks, from pre-digital all the to the current heavy-hitters like BuzzFeed. I would link to a particular timestamp, but you should just listen to the whole thing:

Thanks to the intricacies of the App Store, I was fortunate to purchase Peace before it was pulled. Consequently, I’ll be able to enjoy its anti-fugly-web prowess for the foreseeable future. As soon as I enabled the blocker, I loaded everyone’s favorite tech publication, The Verge.

Without Peace With Peace
Of course when I tried to demonstrate the difference Peace makes, The Verge's current ad is a relatively skinny one 😐

Previously, almost ~40% of the entire viewport was obscured with an ad. And more than a couple times in the past few months, the ads have adorned the homepage atop pieces by Nilay Patel and the like on how Apple is killing publishers with content blockers. Oh, the irony.

As long as sites like The Verge feature terrible ads, I won’t feel sorry for blocking them. And as long as ad networks like The DECK and Carbon feature unobtrusive—and frankly, relevant—ads, I’ll whitelist their publisher sites. Still, I look forward to a day when I can banish ads and contribute directly to the sites I follow.

  1. I assume he was talking about “smaller” sites that rely on largely tasteful ads, like Six Colors, Daring Fireball, (and, somewhat ironically, Marco’s own site).