Remembering the Web Before Advertising

Re-living the Internet's Blissful Commercial-Free Days With AdBlock Plus

By Published on .

Edmund Lee
Edmund Lee
Those of us who are old enough (and giddy about technology enough) can remember there was once a lovely, almost buoyant period in the web's infancy when it was illustrated by nothing but gray pixels -- the default background on the Mosaic web browser that, if you think about it, now suggested itself even then as a kind of blueprint aesthetic. Netscape, its commercial descendant, would later emit the same half-light to the millions who would download its unwieldy software only to click on bits of blue highlighted text that would lead them to rant after rant, until they ultimately found their way back to AOL's chat rooms. (It was always about "social.")

This was when Yahoo was but a list of links and whose creators still replied to emails from folks asking them to list their site (which I can personally attest was a rousing moment of New Media Might, and though he doesn't respond anymore, I'm fairly certain Jerry 's address still works -- he just doesn't remember me is all.)

This was also at a time Before Advertising, before banner ads and ad networks and data collectors, before there were billions and billions at stake, and before journalists would mock (and fear) the rise of those who would report for just pennies.

I wanted to recapture that moment, even if it would be false, and so I recently downloaded an extension to my Chrome and Firefox browsers known as AdBlock Plus, which wipes web sites of any and all advertising -- and though that sounds like a time-traveling/sci-fi conceit, it worked. In fact, the web without advertising muck is better than the web ever was, for while its early period of pamphleteers were simply tedious and today's media-rich startups though wonderful is also mind-numbing and ad-filled, AdBlock has rendered a kind of science fiction wonderland, fusing the best of both.

The New York Times with ads (top), and without ads (bottom).
The New York Times with ads (top), and without ads (bottom).
The New York Times, for example, which prides itself on having a clean site with minimal advertising, through AdBlock's lens has the elegance of its print version. Its main logo top-center, with ample white space on either side Woody Allen would certainly mock as "negatively capable," but, hell, it's just beautiful, and shows you what it was always meant to look like.

At the other end, a different news site, which has often been chided for poor design and lengthy load times, the New York Post is surprisingly light, quick and easy to read when streamed through AdBlock.

While I've never really noticed ads on Facebook to its credit, the site does render much faster through AdBlock. The extension also fishes out sponsored search results on Google, and though it's not necessarily faster, as Google already crunches at light speed, it's cleaner.

At a time when government officials are looking closely at the issues around online tracking and privacy and general consumer protection, AdBlock presents itself as a quick "un-market" magic trick, and it would be on every government hack's computer if they were aware enough to look.

TechCrunch reported a few weeks ago that AdBlock logged 100 million downloads so far, so maybe a Web circa 1995 is possible, but better, with TV and movies and books without the heavy ham-handed technologies that serve all that endless advertising.

But then I thought, "Who would pay for all that?" Here's the thing: I've become so enthralled by quick, clean, noiseless web that I thought, "I might pay for all that." That is, if the web can remain as graceful and as unfettered as AdBlock would have it.

So go see for yourself.

Edmund Lee is digital media reporter at Ad Age. You can follow him on Twitter.
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