A Complete Taxonomy of Internet Chum
by John Mahoney
This is a chumbox. It is a variation on the banner ad which takes the form of a grid of advertisements that sits at the bottom of a web page underneath the main content. It can be found on the sites of many leading publishers, including nymag.com, dailymail.co.uk, usatoday.com, and theawl.com (where it was “an experiment that has since ended.”)
The chumboxes were placed there by one of several chumvendors — Taboola, Outbrain, RevContent, Adblade, and my favorite, Content.ad — who design them to seamlessly slip into a particular design convention established early within the publishing web, a grid of links to appealing, perhaps-related content at the bottom of the content you intentionally came to consume. In return, publishers who deploy chumboxes receive money, traffic, or both. Typically, these publishers collect a percentage of the rates that the chumvendors charge advertisers to be placed inside the grids. These gains can be pocketed, or re-invested into purchasing the publisher’s own placements in similar grids on thousands of other sites amongst the chummy sea, reaping bulk traffic straight from the reeking depths of chumville.
Like everything else on the internet, traffic flowing through chumboxes must be tracked in order for everyone to be paid. Each box in the grid’s performance can be tracked both individually and in context of its neighbors. This allows them to be highly optimized; some chum is clearly better than others. As a byproduct of this optimization, an aesthetic has arisen. An effective chumbox clearly plays on reflex and the subconscious. The chumbox aesthetic broadcasts our most basic, libidinal, electrical desires back at us. And gets us to click.
Clicking on a chumlink — even one on the site of a relatively high-class chummer, like nymag.com — is a guaranteed way to find more, weirder, grosser chum. The boxes are daisy-chained together in an increasingly cynical, gross funnel; quickly, the open ocean becomes a sewer of chum.