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Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks during the opening keynote address the 2017 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference.
The modern internet has more than its share of problems, but if I had to select one irritant that rises above the rest, I’d almost certainly point to the scourge of autoplaying videos. Visit FoxNews.com (if you must) or another popular news site, and you’ll almost certainly be greeted with a video running above the article you’ve come to read. If you scroll down, the video may follow you. Noisy, flashy things, these unavoidable clips are often only tangentially related to the material that pulled you in. And, ultimately, they’re little more than vehicles for the pre-roll ads that run beforehand. If you’re anything like me, you probably can’t hit the pause button fast enough.
Now, Apple is suggesting that it might be able to stop the multisensory flood. At the company’s annual Worldwide Developer’s Conference, senior vice president Craig Federighi announced that Apple would be updating its Safari browser with a handful of new features. As ReCode notes, that includes “ ‘intelligent tracking prevention’ to cut back on ad trackers” (say goodbye to those pants you looked at one time that now follow you to every site you visit) and, most enticingly, “autoplay video blocking.”
While the feature is appealing, it’s worth noting that it should raise some concerns. As Slate’sWill Oremus argued in 2015, many autoplaying ads are “now less annoying than many other forms of online advertising,” especially when, as on Facebook, they play silently and only spring to life if you scroll past them. At their best, such videos can ensure that sites are able to find advertiser support for whatever service they’re offering in a way that integrates naturally with the platform.
The trouble, of course, is that most sites still don’t follow that best practices approach to online video. That’s understandable, in part because video plays such an important role in many publishers’ revenue streams—so much so that Digiday wrote in 2015, “Grouse all you want, autoplay video isn’t going away. In fact, it will only become more ubiquitous.” But as the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer suggested on Twitter shortly after the Apple announcement, that widespread failure likely made a feature like this one “inevitable”:
Once publishers failed to collectively police bad ad behavior, this kind of browser-side fix became inevitable. https://t.co/IHdM37r7qD
— Robinson Meyer (@yayitsrob) June 5, 2017
It remains to be seen, of course, how aggressive the new Safari feature will be. Will it, for example, kill relatively unobtrusive videos like those on Facebook and Twitter? If not, it might encourage other platforms to adopt similar strategies. But if it does, it might mean a return to older, more annoying forms of advertising (such as banner ads that hide the rest of the page), especially if and as other mainstream browsers adopt similar user-friendly approaches.
So, questions linger, but in the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to a little peace and quiet. And, for the first time in a while, I might actually have to get Safari up and running.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.
Much of the white working class voted with its middle finger.