March 24, 2005

It's been almost a year since wildly popular geek site Boing Boing stared into the abyss and saw their bandwidth bill staring back at them. Like the good DIY, indie rock, mirrorshade cryptopunk rebels they go to great lengths to demonstrate that they are, the Boing Boingers approached the obvious solution and Great Corruptor, ads, with trepidation, soliciting comments and vowing that the site would remain unchanged. And so how, now, has the experiment worked?

Take a look for yourself. Boing Boing has not only embraced advertising, but appears to be giving it a vigorous reach-around in the process.

The front page of Boing Boing currently features one banner ad. And three right sidebar graphic ads. And three left sidebar graphic ads. And a text ad. And an ad to place an ad. And ads in the RSS feed. And five "personal project" badges that are for things that you can buy. And one conference, one ISP and two tool references -- it's unclear if there's any quid pro quo going on. And, inexplicably, a link to Fark. Is it an ad? A reciprocal link? No clue. The site doesn't say.

Boing Boing is obviously doing well. They've got -- depending on how you count -- between nine and nineteen ad slots, all of them filled. They're the NASCAR of the weblogging world. And, hey, great. Good for them.

But, last year, the ostensible purpose for exploring "sponsorship, context-sensitive text-ads, etc." was to "survive," to "re-invest in Boing Boing," to "cover our costs," to "cover the costs of hosting."

They're pretty obviously well beyond these goals. It's all of a hundred bucks a month for 1.2 terabytes of bandwidth (or about 150% of what the site currently needs), server included. Given February's 14.5 million pageviews, each advertiser -- taking the low number above -- would have to pay less than a tenth of a cent CPM. It would be easier for everybody involved -- if the goal was to cover costs -- to let one sponsor buy the machine and give them a small, tasteful badge on the front page.

But that's not the goal anymore, is it?

OK, fine. Boing Boing is profitable. Probably very profitable. It's not many sites written "for my friends and my family" that need bookkeepers and reader surveys.

So where's the money going?

Oh, wait, that's none of our business. Boing Boing isn't public. They, legally and ethically, owe nobody an explanation for what they do or how they do it.

Except it feels sort of wrong, doesn't it? It's got the same indie-Orwell feel that calling their business manager a "band manager" has: We're not corporate! We're rebels! We... make a lot of money. We just don't want look like it. Punk rock, dude!

And so we're left with this: the ads are there to cover costs. Really. That's it. This is all about love.

And if Boing Boing were a corporation -- oh, wait, it is; that's what the little "LLC" down in the corner means -- they'd be the first in line to point a finger at that big, sticky wad of hype and say, "Um. Really?" These champions of the purity of the Web, these advocates of transparency would be poking holes in that balloon before the clown got it out of his mouth. It's just that pointed fingers get awkward when you're in front of a mirror.

The thing is, it really is about love. They've been at it for too long for it not to be. Which is exactly why they need to come clean, why they need to explain themselves, to correct the lingering white lies. I don't care how many ads the site has, I don't care how much money they make -- I care that the justification for them is so wildly misleading, so ridiculously so out of date. So -- forgive the term -- corporate. So PR.

So not Boing Boing.

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