The advertising glut dooms the social media industry

Summary:  The internet is a mirror in which we can see important aspects of America. Businesses funded by speculation (greed) struggle to survive in an era of few opportunities and falling investment, while high technology and rising inequality reshape America. The social media stocks are in this maelstrom, as virtual advertising space grows faster than their audience and advertisers dollars. Publishers grow desperate, try ever more intrusive ads. Few will survive.

Bubble cloud


  1. The race for internet revenue.
  2. Speculation.
  3. Inequality.
  4. Analysis of the ad-supported internet.
  5. For More Information.
  6. Great books about bubbles.

(1)  The race for revenue on the internet

The evolution of the internet is best seen in terms of what pays for it: banner ads, then pop-up ads, then auto-run video ads, and now “integrating” the content with the advertisements (these tends often end by debasing the product). It is an evolution to increasingly intrusive ads, forcing people to either spend more of their time killing the ads — or installing ad blockers (which are in a Red Queen race with the developers of ad technology).

Don’t blame the managers of these companies. That’s as foolish as blaming airlines for the poor service that accompanies the cheap fares we demand. We don’t pay for most of the information and many of the services we get on the internet. As Andrew Lewis said: “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” So we have no grounds to complain.

The managers know the futility of this race they’re locked into, but they’re desperate.

Social media cube

(2)  Speculation

The San Francisco Bay area is a city of castles built on clouds, on the massive flow of dollars into companies large and small by greedy investors. A large proportion of its people, rich or just working, live on the money skimmed off from those investments — because many of these companies are not producing profits. It’s the real American dream machine; by comparison the entertainment products produced by Hollywood are as solid as gold bars.

Many of these companies will never produce profits. I’ve spoken before about the biotech bubble, where the grim math of R&D will doom most of these lavishly funded start-ups to some form of crash and burn. Others facets of the big bubble, like Tesla, have been widely discussed. But the structural weakness of the social media mania gets little attention.

Most social media companies — and more broadly, the larger industry of advertising supported internet companies — are doomed in their current form. There are already too many for the advertising industry to support, and venture capitalists continue to manufacture them — their output limited by investors’ willingness to buy their shares, not their actual business prospects.

Driven by the awareness that the clock is running — investors will eventually demand profits — every company seeks to increase their supply of advertising “space”, deepening the glut of ad space — making everybody worse off. Their costs are fixed, while the supply of virtual advertising space can increase faster than the size of their audience or their fuel of advertising revenue.

Hence the frantic search for new advertisement tools that offer higher margins, no matter what the effect on reader satisfaction. {This is why businesses create pricing cartels, or merge until the few survivors can coordinate without direct contact.}

I wonder if we have reached the point where the internet ad-supported business model breaks. First, the shift of traffic to mobile makes effective advertising far more difficult.

Second, some websites might have so loaded up with ads that readers rebel. I’ve stopped reading some websites due to the load of ads: slow to load, too many pop-ups and auto-plays, and the ads interfere with display on an iPad — such as Salon (I brought it up to get the link; my pc immediately jammed). If more people do this, the prospect for profits on the net might disappear for many companies.

In short it’s a death spiral. The few profitable firms (e.g., Facebook, Google) will not only thrive as their smaller competitors fade, but they’ll make some great acquisitions.
Some are more equal than others

(3)  Inequality

The assumption of the internet industry is that they can follow the path of the TV and newspaper/magazine industry to fortune. But times have changed. The revenue of these mass media rested on the prosperity of America’s large vibrant middle class — people who had the money for discretionary purchases and subscriptions.

Four decades of America’s productivity growth has gone into the pockets of the 1%, leaving the middle class a shadow of itself. The rise of pirated media reflects the middle class striving to maintain a lifestyle it can no longer afford, as do people’s reliance on free services and sources of information. These are signs of return to a 19th century-like society (e.g., servants steal).

This slow contraction of the middle class will reshape our society. Charities, community service clubs, and media — all of them rest on an economic foundation that is washing away. This forces them to seek patronage from the rich, another stage in their gathering all the threads of influence in America.

None of this is just happening. The 1% have worked long and hard to gather their strength. We have allowed them to do so. Until we act, they will grow stronger and we will weaken. That’s naturalbehavior, and pointless to condemn or protest.

(4)  A timeline of analysis: the decline of an ad-supported internet

These articles mark the struggle of the industry, sustained so far by the flow of money from dazzled investors (ignoring these companies financial statements).

(5)  For More Information

For more about the bubble see Wolf Richter’s website, such as “No Growth, No profit, No problem” (17 July 2015). If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about bubbles, especially these…

(5) Great books about bubbles

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds
Available at Amazon.
Manias, Panics and Crashes
Available at Amazon.

10 thoughts on “The advertising glut dooms the social media industry”

  1. I’m glad that you singled out Salon; your take exactly describes my experience with the site. Add in how predictable the content of any given article is, and you end up with a site that’s worth **avoiding**, not visiting.

    I hope your predictions about “social media” extend to the truly loathsome “sharing economy”, which seems to be nothing more than rentiers using not especially sophisticated algorithms to extract fees. Orwell would like the new meaning of “sharing”.

    1. Snake,

      Great point about the “sharing” economy. It’s a natural development in a world with decreasing protection for workers (i.e., the bogus “they’re not employees” exemption from regulations) plus an increasingly desperate lower middle class willing to sell-off whatever they can to stay afloat (i.e., Uber drivers make peanuts after accounting for wear on their car; it will get worse once insurance companies stop Uber drivers improperly freeloading commercial coverage on their non-commercial policies).

    2. Snake, you might be interested in this

      La’Zooz is a decentralized organization

      Anyone can contribute towards the establishment of its goals in whatever way he or she believes would be best. Tasks are carried out within autonomous, self-defined circles or teams. Each circle can consist of any number of individuals (including a single person) collaborating together towards well-defined goals, and holding their own (perhaps multisig) wallet to promote the circle’s tasks. Once a circle delivers their contribution, the La’Zooz community as a whole evaluates this contribution and as an expression of appreciation reimburses the circle’s wallet with zooz tokens accordingly.

      Our basic beliefs are reflected in the La’Zooz initiative. Using a decentralized digital coin enables us all to enjoy and share our own wealth (and empty seats). All efforts are directed to make this a community project so that all can become part and enjoy the value that is created. We share a deep hope that La’Zooz will become a people’s project creating prosperity for all.

      It will probably be on Ethereum since Vitalik Buterin is auditing them

    3. In other words Snake , you are not looking two moves ahead, Uber, Lyft, RideShare, AirBNB are initial normal corporate solutions that found investors that do not see 2 steps ahead. Dapps (Distributed applications(Ethereum)) will create people centered replacements for all of them in the first 18 months. (Ethereum is ready for take off)

      I agree with you on the “sharing economy”, its bullsh%t, you have to understand that these people have no future.

  2. Why web pages suck” by Ben Thompson at Stratchery.

    By an analyst who covers the advertising/marketing/social media/technology intersection. All his stuff is worth a read.

    That page also has links to people who have done more technical analysis on why a 540 character post ends up sending megabytes to the browser for instance.

  3. Pingback: Is The Online Advertising Market Bursting? -

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