What’s wrong with making money from advertising?

Any hardcore developer must be dying to work at Google, Twitter, or Facebook, right? Well, no; see this post by Dave Copeland, “Why I’d never work for Google, Twitter, or Facebook”.

I generally agree with his points; if your core business (where the money comes from) is advertising, your customers are the businesses who pay for the ads, and — to put it bluntly — your users are your product. However sophisticated the services you offer to keep your users around (viewing ads…), your relationship with your user/product is unavoidably marred by this fact.  “I’m giving you things, on the assumption that I can convince you to give sufficient money to my actual customers.”

As a developer, I’m not interested in pushing ads any more than Dave is (though the point is academic, since I’m not exactly being recruited by the “big three” — but the principle certainly influenced my job search last year).

It’s not just that I’m not interested in advertising, though. Any company’s actions in the world have myriad effects on lots of people, from tiny to grand scale, and delivering better and more effective advertising is a net negative.

Do you ever sit back and look at modern advertising?  We’ve come a long way from little squares of newsprint crammed with text, or quirky drawings dreamed up by some daydreaming back office worker.

Current advertising is incredible. The best of it delivers pitches honed with decades of research and carefully planned methodologies, and convinces us to buy all kinds of things that, on the whole, do not actually improve the quality of our lives.  Unfortunately, these things cost money — sometimes rather large sums — and so to pay for these things that don’t make us happier, we have to work harder and longer, at jobs we like less (but which may pay better), and thus pretty surely we decrease our quality of life.

 

We don’t need better, more effective advertising.

I’m pretty sure we’d be a lot better off with a lot less.

 

This is more subtle than something like working for Phillip Morris.  Ads don’t give you cancer, though they may convince you to buy something that will.  They sure as hell don’t help cure it.

 

A company is more than how it makes its money

This is certainly true, and when the interests of the business can align with a public interest, amazing things can happen.  But the money is at the wheel, and when public interests don’t align with the income stream automatically, there’s no contest.  Compromises and concessions are possible, a path of least damage can be found with enough effort, but at the end of the day all those amazing developers still need to be paid.

There’s also a red herring here that needs to be called out.  The core business sets the primary tasks.  Most effort must serve these goals directly, though it may also serve secondary goals.  So even if there are valuable secondary effects, those are still secondary.  Pointing to GPS, radar, etc. as justifications for military spending doesn’t make sense, because the primary task was to kill people from a distance.  If developing useful civilian technology were the primary task, it would have been far less expensive (and obviously less morally complicated).

It’s not as if without military research, we’d be living in a dystopian alternate reality with none of these advances — they simply would have come about through different pathways (and we’d possibly even have better versions today… who knows).

The calculus for something like Google is more complicated, because the secondary benefits are larger, and the negative effects of the primary goal are less obvious (and I imagine not everyone feels as negatively about advertising, consumerism, etc. as I do).

But… it’s certainly more comfortable, mentally, to simply choose an employer with a primary purpose that actually aligns with the public good.

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