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First impressions of Scroll, an ad-blocker with a conscience

January 28, 2020 6:58 PM
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First impressions of Scroll, an ad-blocker with a conscience

After years of buildup, Scroll finally launched to the public today. Founded by former Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile, Scroll is a service that charges $5 a month to remove ads on a number of partnered news sites, including Vox, The Verge, Gizmodo, Kotaku, Slate, and Buzzfeed. Haile’s service is predicated on the following beliefs: that modern digital advertising creates a poor user experience, that it is easily thrawted by ad blockers, and that the marketplace for ads has been monopolized by big tech. By creating a single monthly subscription that encompasses a number of different sites, Scroll is betting that it can entice users to dump their ad blockers, all while giving publishers a better payout than traditional page-view based advertising rates. (Scroll says that it pays publishers for a pay view at a slightly higher rate than they’d make with advertising.)

It’s an audacious pitch, and the experience of using Scroll is pleasantly seamless. Yet it’s also a service defined by its limitation.

Installing Scroll is an intuitative process. On my iPad Pro, Scroll started working immediately after I created an account on its website. (For iPhones, Scroll also offers an app that plugs into mobile Safari.) Perhaps hypocritically for a service selling itself as a privacy-focused platform, Scroll uses browser cookies to verify with partner sites that you are a Scroll member. It’s a bit of icky solution, but it does mean you don’t need to login to partner sites or download a browser extension to use Scroll, which is neat.

There’s an initial delay the first time you load a partner site, but after that I found that sites like The Atlantic and Vox loaded much faster with Scroll than they did otherwise. That’s because the sites using Scroll don’t need to load any ad units. Scroll undeniably creates a faster, more visually pleasing web browsing experience.

You can use Scroll across 32 popular news sites at launch. That seems like a big number, but its buoyed by partnerships with Vox Media and G/O Media. Those two networks account for almost half of the sites available with Scroll. And two of those sites, Deadspin and Splinter, are both currently inactive because of the incompetency of G/O Media’s management. Big newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal are completely absent.

It’s also important to note that Scroll isn’t a paywall replacement. While you can view articles on The Atlantic’s website without ads, you’ll still hit that monthly five article limit. It’s the same deal with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Insider, and Slate; partnered sites that have paywalled content still have it on Scroll. This makes the future of Scroll a bit of an open question. For example, Vox Media’s paywalled sites, including New York Magazine and Vulture, aren’t included at all. Vox’s other sites are reportedly developing paywalls of their own, and it’s unclear what will become of their Scroll partnership when that happens.

In the meantime, Scroll’s failure to reckon with the paywall feels like a missed opportunity to create a really radical reimagining of how people pay for journalism online, and it deeply limits the value of using the service on many of its partner sites.

There are a number of nice touches throughout the Scroll experience. The app syncs your reading position in articles across devices, although I found the implementation while using a browser unreliable. Scroll also provides a transparent breakdown of where your subscription dollars are going, which is a fascinating way of bringing transparency to the usually murky economics of page views. Despite the privacy concerns, I like that I never have to worry about signing in again on partner websites, something I have need to do constantly while reading The New York Times.

Yet Scroll’s value proposition is ultimately slight: it’s essentially a $5 subscription to read G/O Media, Buzzfeed, and Vox Media sites without ads. Everything else on Scroll is either very niche (SearchEngineJournal) or still has its own paywall with varying amounts of limitation. Everything about the ad-free experience Scroll offers could be replicated through a good ad blocker, yet Scroll pretties the whole thing up in an seamless and more ethical package. If that sounds like enough for you, Scroll is worth it. But it’s not a revolution.