Dear Web: Shut the F*ck Up!

Pardon the headline. In the spirit of our profane presidential campaigns, I see no need to sanitize my disdain for web video ads that take control of my screen and speakers.

You know the drill. You click on a website, and the homepage loads normally. You begin to read, and suddenly a pop-up window obscures all or part of the screen, demanding five to 30 seconds of your time to view an advertisement. Increasingly, websites use an HTML5 programming feature called autoplay to automatically start ads with video and sound.

Apparently, some people—advertisers—love this. By 2018, online video ad spending is projected to reach $6.83 billion, nearly double the $3.52 billion spent in 2013.

I hate it. Online research is becoming more like TV channel surfing.

As a freelance writer, I take on assignments that require extensive research. I often have a dozen or more browser tabs open at once. Yes, I save sites to Pocket, use bookmarks, favorites, tab groups, and copy hyperlinks to my notes in Word. But at certain stages, it’s helpful to have multiple sites open while switching back and forth to compare content.

web video ads should use 'mute" as the default setting

Web browser fixes

Most popular browsers, like Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer, have tweaked their settings to help with the onslaught, but I find these fixes don’t always work for me. Firefox, the browser I use most, has added a speaker icon in the tab, which you can click to mute the sound. However, when I wake my computer and Firefox reloads web pages, autoplay advertisements sometimes reanimate, like zombies. I’ve had as many as three soundtracks going at once—disembodied voices quarreling like drunken ghosts as I try to read morning emails.

Worse, the problem is often delayed, so I think everything is fine. I’ve raised my volume to transcribe the faint voice level of a recorded telephone interview, and then WHAM! A car company is telling me at 80 decibels how quiet the inside of their latest model is.

Information wants to be free,” Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, told the first annual Hacker’s Conference back in 1984. At that time, most people hadn’t heard of the Internet, and George Orwell’s predictions about Big Brother using ubiquitous telescreens for surveillance and propaganda seemed more far-fetched than today.

People want information to be free, but those who create, collect, synthesize or publish it, need to make a living. I am one of them. When people download unauthorized electronic copies of my book on peer-to-peer exchange sites, they generate no royalties for me or my coauthor. I understand the need for paid content and for advertiser-supported content. I get it. Websites require time and expense to maintain.

However, web technology itself has enabled content providers to charge advertisers on a per-view basis every time autoplay activates, and in turn, advertisers are demanding metrics to show whether the ad was in view and guarantees that ads play for a minimum number of seconds or even to completion. Say goodbye to “Click here to skip this ad” options.

I don’t mind static ads beside content on web pages. It seems no different from a newspaper or magazine. I don’t even mind watching short ads before a YouTube video. What I cannot stand is unexpected sound coming out of my computer.

Facebook has shown the right way to use autoplay video by making “mute” the default speaker setting. All websites should follow their lead. If I want to hear the sound after a few seconds of video, I’ll click on it.

web video ads should use 'mute" as the default setting

There ought to be a law

Forcing website visitors to listen to ads recalls a problem the FCC addressed in 2010, when Congress passed the CALM Act to limit loud commercials on television. I hated having to grab the remote to lower the volume for commercials that blasted louder than regular programs.

A similar law to mute websites seems unlikely. I’ve chosen one small, personal way to fight the battle: in online articles I write, I avoid using any hyperlinks to sites that automatically play sounds.

Hopefully, by the time you are reading this, none of the websites I’ve linked to above will have instituted this irksome practice.


Frazeology end note


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Eric F. Frazier

Eric F. Frazier is an independent writer, editor, book reviewer and co-author of GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones.