I was texting with a friend this morning, talking about what we’ve been reading lately like we do. And I was reflecting on some positives and negatives about the book I started last evening, ending with a remark that indeed it feels like We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Gone Girl meets The Omen as apparently Entertainment Weekly described it¹.
And of those three sources, The Omen was underlined and I had no idea why. I don’t remember seeing that behavior in text messages in the past². So I tapped on it out of curiosity.
And of course, up pops an ad atop my text window, for a 2006 Liev Schreiber remake — a film whose existence I had no concept of now, if I ever did³. The only model which makes sense, given the context — in which two other films (both adapted from books) did not similarly get underlined — is that whomever was in charge of marketing this particular film splashed out some money for advertising that is only slowly being spent. Presumably the other two films were more popular and if they were similarly pushed, they already served out their marketing sentences. Apple isn’t doing this just to get the slice of money they’d get for selling or renting these to you via iTunes; no, they need further inducement. Apparently they aren’t interested in selling you the books via iBooks, either.
You can see the marketing thinking here, I guess. “When people are talking about our movie, we’ll give them the opportunity to buy it right there.” But for me, it’s a hugely unwelcome intrusion, a distraction. It’s another little slice of human soul given up to pointless consumerism. Another tiny fragment of attention stolen from a day, taking a little bit of me away from a conversation with a friend.
I do my best to avoid these things. I use an ad blocker — I used to white list sites I visited frequently but at this point, I can’t imagine doing so, what with ads out there installing trackers into your browsers and collecting data for themselves, and ads that can apparently simply grab passwords by asking for them in off-screen forms and letting the browser aid-and-abet the privacy violation. I support a handful of sites with subscriptions, and yes, I more or less freeload the rest, if there’s no alternative. Sites that won’t show you content unless you disable your ad blocker I simply don’t visit.
It’s clear from the landscape online that the only way ads have of working is by paying extremely little for each of these tiny little attention violations. It’s the model that works. And so by being part of it, we encourage it to find new ways to steal little bits of attention, as here in my text messages, an ad revenue model that didn’t exist ten years ago.
It makes me think of baseball, and how different it is to see a live game, particularly a high school game or something. You go, and the game has a sort of rhythm to it, and yes, there’s a lot of space between the actions. Maybe thirty seconds to a pitch or more, et cetera, and then the burst of activity around a play. I’ve read in books descriptions of listening to a game on the radio, and seen representations of that in films such as A League of Their Own and it used to be a listening experience itself that was filled with little silences. Now, watching on television, those spaces are carved into a million little opportunities for ad reads — “Tonight’s line up brought to you by yadda yadda yadda,” “Tonight’s umpires brought to you by and so on and so on,”4 and a new read between each batter in the line-up it seems, if they could sell that many. Each of these costing a little bit. Each cutting away a little bit of soul.
I know there’s no putting this genie back in the bottle. I’m just finding myself more fearful of new experiences because I don’t want the ads. I stay away from mobile games for the most part because I expect there will be an ad at the bottom of every page. Before I look something up on the web, I ask myself whether I really care to know, because I know it’ll mean clicking through garbage to get at what I want. Some times it’s better just not to know.
And taking a break from Twitter, at the moment, I wonder too about the unhealthy ways it’s changed me. I’m still finding myself reaching for my phone often, and then having a moment where I realize that it’s a reflex and not a need. A search for that bit of dopamine, I guess. I’ve been quitting all these things lately, and looking for the interactions with the world that enrich me. I started up an Instagram account but killed it off after a month or two; I reactivated Facebook only so I could delete my account permanently (it had been years, and the amount of digital cruft that built up in there was terrifying, a million little notifications, each another little cut). The Twitter break. I miss the people that I’d be connecting with in that way; but those connections seem so thin. Built on memories of people and not people. But a lot of that is a separate issue; the focus here is the million little cuts of advertising that I have to suffer to have these experiences.
Instead, I want the more focused experiences — the art museum, all my reading, my (ad-free) podcast, this (ad-free) blog. Those last two actually cost me — a few hundred dollars a year for hosting costs, and I pay it willingly, because it feels like a more human connection, conversations with a buddy and an audience5. All that other stuff serves a mode of being which doesn’t really serve me, and I just have to let it go. While I still have a bit of soul left.
¹The book in question is Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth, one of this summer’s crop of thrillers. I read a fair amount of thrillers, actually. Well, I read a lot of everything, to be fair. (back)
²To be entirely accurate, and this may be germane, it was actually an iMessage, since I was typing away on my iPad, an experience I find more comfortable than thumbing around on a keyboard on the iPhone. I have a USB keyboard for my iPad, much better for doing the crossword puzzle every day. (back)
³And glancing at the “Tomatometer” which accompanied the pop-up, it seems I should be glad I never did. Eesh; that is maybe not the strongest way to sell a movie, to throw a “27%” right there next to it. (back)
4I actually originally wrote this bit with the actual sponsors I hear every night watching the Red Sox broadcast, but I then realized I was doing the same thing I’m inveighing against. And not even getting paid for it. (back)
5I realize this comes from a place of privilege — not everyone can afford to spend money each year to have their little ad-free voice out there. I’m lucky. (back)