Advertising and me

Published: March 11, 2008. Filed under: Meta, Philosophy.

Recently I received an email from a company that’s in the online advertising business; they run a network that places targeted ads on a collection of sites, and wanted to know if I’d be interested in running them here. I just finished writing a reply and, since I’ve gotten a couple such offers in the recent past, I figured it’s probably time to make a public statement of my policy toward ads on sites that I personally manage. It’s very simple:

I don’t run ads, and don’t plan to.

I don’t personally have anything against advertising in general: it’s true that in the course of doing my (philosophy) degree I did get to spend some time poking into the ethical consequences of various approaches to advertising, but I also work, willingly, in an industry which is almost entirely supported by advertising revenue. There’s no contradiction there, and I count myself extremely fortunate to work for a company which develops tools to help newspapers make money while providing useful information to their communities (see: Marketplace).

And I’m writing a book which, once completed, will be sold for profit, but that doesn’t bother me either: the folks who are publishing it are incredibly cool people who’ve released several important tech books under open licenses, and so I’m happy to have them charge for my book. We need more publishers like them, and I want them to stay in business.

But I’m not running this site, or djangosnippets, for profit, and I don’t incur any monetary costs to keep them online; the only cost is the time and effort I put into them, and I don’t really count that.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t run ads and just pocket any money they bring in, but that’s not really my style; part of the reason is simply that, even at their absolute best, online ads are a break from actual content, and have to take up at least some space on the page, and those are things I’d rather not have if I can avoid them.

And part of the reason is the simple fact that I am where I am today because of people who shared their knowledge and experience, for free, with anyone who was willing to listen. I didn’t learn programming or web development or anything directly related to my craft from a formal process; I learned it by reading and tinkering, and by asking questions and getting answers from people who are smarter than I am. And ever since I got into the Web in earnest, I’ve consistently been astounded by the ongoing willingness of its experts to openly give away their expertise, pro bono publico in the truest sense of the phrase.

I’ll never be able to repay any of those people properly, but I’d like to think I can “pay it forward”, in a sense, by sharing what little knowledge and experience I have, in the hope that someone who’s just starting out now will be able to pick up something useful and maybe go on to build something cool as a result.

By sheer coincidence, I was browsing around the other day and rediscovered one of my favorite posts from Mark Pilgrim which, given the consistent quality of Mark’s writing, is saying something, and which, in a few lines of dialogue, summarizes this feeling more aptly than I ever will:

Tom: “This is really good. You could probably make some money off this someday.”
Me: “Maybe, but I’m not going to. I’m giving it away for free.”
Tom: “Why would you do that?”
Me: “Because this is the way I want the world to work.”
Tom: “But the world doesn’t work that way.”
Me: “Mine does.”