The End of Apple’s Affiliate Marketing is Destroying TouchArcade

TouchArcade’s Eli Hodapp talking about Apple shutting down the affiliate marketing scheme that has funded sites like his in a post titled “Apple Kills the App Store Affiliate Program, and I Have No Idea What We Are Going to Do.”:

Apple announced that they’re killing the affiliate program, citing the improved discovery offered by the new App Store. (Music, books, movies, and TV remain.) It’s hard to read this in any other way than “We went from seeing a microscopic amount of value in third party editorial to, we now see no value.” I genuinely have no idea what TouchArcade is going to do. Through thick and thin, and every curveball the industry threw at us, we always had App Store affiliate revenue- Which makes a lot of sense as we drive a ton of purchases for Apple. I don’t know how the takeaway from this move can be seen as anything other than Apple extending a massive middle finger to sites like TouchArcade, AppShopper, and many others who have spent the last decade evangelizing the App Store and iOS gaming- Particularly on the same day they announced record breaking earnings of $53.3 billion and a net quarterly profit of $11.5 billion.

Affiliate marketing is the financial driver behind sites like Wirecutter, TouchArcade, and most likely as important to all of the journalistic enterprises that you see with daily deal roundups like Kotaku and 9to5Mac. The largest sites are able to separate all advertising and affiliate marketing business away from their editorial staff so that they can remain independent and firewalled from the business as much as possible. Sites with single-digit numbers of writers and editors aren’t able to maintain a firewall, but I think their readers understand the situation.

Even when affiliate marketing works, the physical goods version of it fuels the most abysmal working conditions in the world. Amazon’s deals happen because they use the same techniques as Wal-Mart to make them, Jeff Bezos and Sam Walton’s deals are only possible when we are grinding the poor into dust. Even Apple has worked hard to exploit their retail employees and steal their wages.

Affiliate marketing would be better if Amazon, Wal-Mart, and other companies’ employees were unionized. Collective bargaining seems like a foreign idea to most of the younger retail workers I’ve talked to and Amazon these companies treat their employees as infinitely replaceable. If employees hear anything about collective bargaining, it’s from training videos that companies like Best Buy force their employees to watch. These videos lie about union behavior and repudiate the power employees could have if they were bargaining as a group. The videos say that employees are better off negotiating as individuals, one-on-one with management. As if managers weren’t trained to exploit their employees, and empowered by the entire corporate management apparatus to do so. One-on-one is more like a thousand managers versus the one employee.

Traditional display advertising isn’t valuable enough to pay bills. I run an ad blocker, we all get the prompts to stop doing it, and we choose not to. Ad payloads slow our reading by wasting bandwidth, and the advertising publishing industry doesn’t give a fuck about our privacy or do anything to stop malicious payloads from being delivered to us.

Ongoing subscription donations, or Patreon support, are nice if you can get them, but it is a difficult thing to maintain on the ground. Any time you publish an update (to any kind of subscription service) there is an opportunity that subscribers will retract ongoing pledges and unsubscribe. Every payment processor and middleman would love it for all of us to spend our entire lives begging for money, but it’s difficult to find time to write and work if you’re spending all of your time on maintaining a subscription pledge system like Patreon.

Apple has been absorbing writers for a few years in order to create curated articles on their App Store, but those articles lack any sort of attribution as to who wrote them. Maybe dozens of hands touch each one, who knows. That byline situation is a choice, but by business need there is almost certainly no editorial independence for those writers at Apple. Without editorial independence and a byline those writers may have a difficult time finding work once they tire of working there with nothing to show in their portfolio, or when Apple decides to stop curating their app store to this degree and there aren’t any sites left to write for.

There just isn’t a good solution for independent writers and sites like TouchArcade within capitalism today unless they have a massive wave of popularity supporting them on Patreon or incredibly small operating costs like Daring Fireball with exactly one writer. I’ve enjoyed reading TouchArcade and hope Hodapp finds a path forward without any kind of affiliate marketing.

Free Player Data

TouchArcade’s Eli Hodapp has an anonymously sourced article from a free-to-play game developer:

You might not use Facebook, but your connections give you away. If you play with friends, or you have a significant other who plays, we can see the same IP address, and learn who you are playing with. When we don’t know information, we try to gather it in a game. Have you played a game with different country flags? We use those to not only appeal to your nationalistic pride, but to figure out where you are (or where you identify). Your IP address says you are in America, but you buy virtual items featuring the flag of another country, we can start to figure out if you are on vacation, or immigrated. Perhaps English is not your first language. We use all of this to send you personalized Push Notifications, and show you store specials and items we think you will want.

And if you are a whale, we take Facebook stalking to a whole new level. You spend enough money, we will friend you. Not officially, but with a fake account. Maybe it’s a hot girl who shows too much cleavage? That’s us. We learned as much before friending you, but once you let us in, we have the keys to the kingdom. We will use everything to figure out how to sell to you. I remember we had a whale in one game that loved American Football despite living in Saudi Arabia. We built several custom virtual items in both his favorite team colors and their opponents, just to sell to this one guy. You better believe he bought them. And these are just vanity items. We will flat out adjust a game to make it behave just like it did last time the person bought IAP. Was a level too hard? Well now they are all that same difficulty.

I’ve seen plenty of bad things in free-to-play games to anecdotally support the anonymous developer in the article above. For example, players earning premium in-game currency through offers that require their social security number and other extremely personal information that nobody should be asking for. The analytics function to dehumanize people playing the game, remove any chance the game had at being legitimately enjoyable without spending more and more money, and churn through players and their cash until the game is no longer profitable for the developer to operate. At this point it will be shut down as ungracefully as possible in order to move players on to the next game and the cycle repeats.