Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind.Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951)
Social media without advertising is an idea that sounds too good to be true, in part because we’ve been conditioned to accept the designs and external motives of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other top-down communication platforms. Nowadays, unless stated otherwise, one expects to see sponsored content around, in-between, before, during, and after what is being presented online. This is especially true when it comes to social media — one of the main vehicles used by corporations to deliver ads to the public.
But what if social media users had the ability to experience Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter without ads? If we were able to witness how our time and attention are captured in real time, would we want to switch back and continue to enrich advertisers? Most of us would probably be happier without being constantly targeted by ads, or would at least want to have the option of opting out of personalized advertising. Yet, there’s no sure way of escaping ads (especially on mobile social media applications), which has benefited those who depend on advertising across social networks.
“Social media advertising accounts for nearly one third (28.6%) of all internet advertising revenues and will continue to grow. Revenues were $35.6 billion in 2019, a 23% increase over 2018 revenues of $28.9 billion,” according to the 2019 Interactive Advertising Bureau report. “The value proposition to advertisers is the unparalleled targeting capabilities these players are able to offer,” states the report. “With their troves of valuable data and their ability to integrate ads to appear in a native format, brands know how to reach consumers in the most effective and least disruptive way.”
In addition to ads, social media platforms have become primary tools for sharing just about anything — daily personal musings, corporate news, and even official political statements. Without meaningful content categorization, this hodgepodge of “popular,” sponsored, and organic content aims to attract as many users as possible, who inevitably have to sift through the articles, videos, and posts that have been recommended to them by an algorithm.
The dominance of social media companies is further established through a sense of ‘social media realism,’ or the notion that there is no alternative to the current digital communication model. This arrangement, aided by those companies’ monopolistic business practices, cements the power dynamic in the U.S. in which social media ads managed by a small number of corporations generate an incredible amount of revenue with little to no regard when it comes to public well-being.
While this “value proposition” has worked fabulously for social media companies and their partners, the addicting designs and engagement-maximizing features of their products continue to harm those they claim to protect. According to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted in July, 2020, two-thirds of Americans (64%) say “social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country today,” citing “misinformation and the hate and harassment they see on social media,” as well as social media’s role in “fomenting partisanship and polarization” and “the creation of echo chambers.”
One would think such overwhelmingly negative feedback would motivate social media companies to improve their services. However, each time their executives are caught in the act (selling private data, amplifying hateful and violent rhetoric, conducting experiments with users, etc.), their friends in academia, corporate media, and government make sure to protect the pay-to-play mechanism through which social media companies peddle products and personalities. This is why it is nearly impossible for an idea like “social media without ads” to enter the mainstream without being immediately politicized and shot down by the biggest benefactors of social media’s services.
To illustrate what social media could look like without distractions, I’ve compiled some of the browser add-ons that promise to give users more control over their social media feeds. All credit goes to the makers of these applications, who have allowed users like me to observe how much of the content on social media is curated for us, not by us. If a solution to our social media dilemma exists, those who are helping us see the problem more clearly are undoubtedly a part of that solution.
The examples I use below are from browsing social media on desktop devices, but this issue plays a significant role in the cell phone market. While writing this article, it was announced that Apple would make changes to its products early next year that will require developers to ask for permission to gather data and track users across mobile apps and websites. This development visibly angered Facebook, which launched an expensive campaign against Apple, claiming that limiting personalized ads would hurt “small businesses.” Clearly, the lack of transparency and user control on social media feeds has reached a new level and we’re now witnessing how much is on the line for the advertising industry. Therefore, it will help the public not only to understand what it means, but to experience how it feels to browse social media without ads; most have been deprived of that choice and it’s worth asking why.
It should be mentioned that the purpose of this article is to show what social media looks like without advertising (I am not selling you products or fixing your computer), so please use any of these tools at your own risk.
“The cycle of harm perpetuated by Facebook’s scale-at-any-cost business model is plain to see,” Adrienne LaFrance writes in The Atlantic. “Scale and engagement are valuable to Facebook because they’re valuable to advertisers. These incentives lead to design choices such as reaction buttons that encourage users to engage easily and often, which in turn encourage users to share ideas that will provoke a strong response.”
While the 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma” illustrated how these design choices affect regular users, the film didn’t spend much time on the measures people can take to snip advertisements from their feeds. Somewhere in the end credits, one of the interviewees briefly mentions using browser extensions to counter manipulative design.
Here’s how it works: much of the criticism about Facebook is centered around its engagement-driven and easily manipulated news feed—so what if users could turn it off? Or remove certain elements of it? Or disable videos and ads? Or remove the chat? Or completely change the interface? Fluff Busting Purity, or F.B. Purity for short, is a web browser extension designed to “customize the Facebook website’s user interface and add extra functionality.” The application has been featured on CNET, Lifehacker, and The Washington Post.
While F.B. Purity provides numerous customization options, I found that deleting the whole “news” feed worked best for me. This doesn’t mean I am cutting myself off from vital information (the argument some people use when defending Facebook’s business model), it just means I have greater control of what appears to me on Facebook. Without the constant shifting of posts, it becomes much easier to not let Facebook capture my attention, which is probably why this option is not available to its users.
Recently, YouTube announced they will run ads on videos without giving their creators any of the revenue if they are not in YouTube’s Partner Program. Similarly to other social media companies, this decision follows years of carelessness when it comes to YouTube’s independent creators who, in addition to experiencing drops in revenue and being regularly censored, will now have to wonder if their latest video will run after a toilet paper commercial.
How does YouTube look without the “extra” content? There are a number of browser tools that provide flexibility over what you don’t want to see in YouTube’s interface, such as the constant stream of odd videos that sneak in your homepage and around what you want to watch. As far as ads before and during each video, ad block extensions prevent annoying and irrelevant sponsored content from capturing your attention.
For more information on how YouTube’s AI curates information for its users, check out TheirTube, a “Youtube filter bubble simulator that provides a look into how videos are recommended on other people’s YouTube” developed by Tomo Kihara. “While recommendations can be useful, they can also reinforce the same points of view over and over again, trapping you inside a recommendation bubble,” its website states. “So if you’re skeptical about climate change, YouTube can recommend even more content denying climate change — confirming the bias that you already have … TheirTube shows how YouTube’s recommendations can drastically shape someone’s experience on the platform and, as a result, shape their worldview.” Guillaume Chaslot’s project, AlgoTransparency, illustrates how YouTube’s recommendations work in more detail, by showing the most recommended videos from a set of 1000+ information channels.
Similarly to Facebook and YouTube (in fact, most of these companies are starting to look the same), Twitter generates engagement by showing content it deems “popular” to users, regardless of whether they follow the account that produced said content or not. For example, if you don’t follow (or have blocked) X news organization or Y politician, you may still see their tweets, because people in your network follow and engage with the content of those accounts. In other words, regular users have little control over what appears in their feed, regardless of their ability to “mute,” “block,” and “unfollow.”
Twitter’s biggest advantage is it’s “What’s Happening” section (previously called “Trending Topics”), which allows companies and personalities to “sponsor” trends. When I removed that control mechanism, I realized how much of the chatter on the platform is driven not by the public, but by Twitter itself, its partners, and clients.
One of the best ways to experience Twitter without ads is through an extension called BetterTwitter. The application allows users to remove elements in Twitter’s interface that make it easy to lose focus, such as “trends,” ads, and videos. By pointing out all of the extra content that is sneaked to users in real time, BetterTwitter reveals how much of our attention is spent on sponsored content. Another add-on, Twitter Demetricator focuses solely on removing numbers and metrics from the platform. I noticed that when the numbers went away, I started considering content because of its substance, rather than engagement metrics.
If you constantly feel the urge to be on the feeds (nothing to be ashamed of, since that’s what they were designed to do), you might want to check out website blockers like LeechBlock which can redirect you to more productive places. (P.S. you also might want to unsubscribe from social media companies’ email lists, as they will amp up their messaging once they sense you are not “engaging” as much as before.) Applications like LeechBlock won’t cure you from your social media addiction, but they will at least make you aware of it.
Things are a bit harder on mobile devices, where productivity frequently goes to die and it often feels like there’s little we can do about it. Some tips for building defenses against social media “on the go” include removing the constant notifications you get when you install a social media app and monitoring your use (here’s a helpful guide by PC Magazine’s Rob Morin on weaning off cell phones and social media).
If you are sufficiently lucky and/or lazy, you might forget your password and not care about it just long enough to realize that the social media platform to which you were giving your attention every day doesn’t benefit you in any meaningful way.
Why Aren’t More People Talking About This?
Imagining social media without the weight of external profit motives requires a total reexamination of an organization’s marketing practices. Most organizations (even those critical of social media) have dedicated marketing positions and invest money in pumping content in the feeds, which makes advocating for an adless social media experience an unlikely prospect—in the heads of most marketers and executives, “social media without ads” automatically translates to losing money from potential customers, donors, followers, and so on. What we are left with are a lot of rants, opinions, and illustrations of the “social media dilemma,” but very little when it comes to practical solutions.
Some call for less radical measures, like tweaking the algorithm controlling how information is presented on the feeds, so content becomes prioritized by credibility, rather than engagement. Others would like to see social media companies lose or limit their ability to target users. While these steps might alleviate parts of the problem, there’s little evidence that social media monopolizers are interested in meaningful reform. They want to have it both ways—to cater to anyone who can afford their services and to let questionable content slip from time to time (or hide it behind labels where it’s one click away).
This brings us back to the way those companies were designed to divide and conquer their users—they elicit responses (“engagement”) from us, while severely limiting our ability to express ourselves.
Directly Addressing the Failure of Pay-To-Play
The discourse on social media often turns into debates about suspended and deleted accounts, content labels, censorship, and the general ineptitude of executives to address problems with their platforms. While these issues define social media companies’ content management practices, they don’t address what’s at the heart of their business models—a pay-to-play mechanism that allows anyone with the right budget to gain an audience and target unsuspecting users.
Before we address how people and institutions are able to amplify violent rhetoric to millions, and what that rhetoric is, we need to talk about the process that keeps the conveyor belt running. Few with a big “following” on social media are willing to do so.
What happens when we get rid of sponsored trends, ads, and “recommended” videos? Do we cut our connection to credible news? While some would argue that such a change would negatively affect the public, it’s hard to imagine how less money for social media companies and more control for users would be a bad thing. Such a change would transform social media platforms into actual battlegrounds for ideas, rather than rigged dissemination channels for the 1% and their partners.
If this were to happen, the biggest losers would be the ones who depend the most on social media’s channels to manipulate public opinion: corporate media and pundits, establishment politicians, influential think tanks and nonprofits, celebrities, etc. However, because independent creators with good intentions also depend on social media to promote their message, it’s easy for the biggest benefactors to shape the narrative in a way that favors them, which means doing everything in their power to avoid considering or even mentioning structural change. This is how the scale of Facebook/Instagram, Google/YouTube, and Twitter helps them reassert dominance over public communication.
The lack of control over what’s in front of regular users is the most powerful and the least talked about feature of social media, perhaps because the most popular accounts (managed by teams of highly-paid professionals) market to us, they don’t identify with us. They want to put more ads in front of us, not to be in our shoes. In some cases, social media’s ‘power users’ are not shown the same amount of ads as regular users, which is how those companies shield their biggest content producers from the “economy” experience of their increasingly elitist platforms.
Yet, as this article illustrates, one doesn’t need social media clout to experience the feeds without sponsored content. And once you experience what digital communication could look like without the invisible hand of the marketplace, it’s hard to go back to Ad Central.