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Why does everyone hate background music on the web?

Headphones

Background music is something we have all become accustomed to in shops, cafes, restaurants, and just about everywhere else, but online the situation is very different. No major website in 2019 autoplays background, no matter if they are an ecommerce store, a news site, or a social media platform – it just is not done.

The early days of the web

Back in the nineties and early 2000s, before the likes of Facebook, YouTube, or Google, background music was more commonplace. Those that had their own personal websites on places like Geocities or Tripod often added some music to go alongside the flashing GIFs and moving backgrounds. These sites were ugly, but they were all we had and people were still learning what works and what doesn’t, and just trying to learn HTML.

Even when MySpace came along and all your friends signed up, background music was commonplace with many users choosing to ignore copyright rules and upload their favourite MP3s to the site so they would autoplay when you visited their profile. MySpace was sued over this practice, but such an audio assault was expected when you visited many sites on the web at the time.

Facebook changed the game. Where MySpace let their users play around with the style of their profiles, which made some great-looking but most ugly and garish, Facebook gave everyone an identical profile with very little customisation and definitely no music in the background. People enjoyed the ease in which you could browse Facebook without constant blaring from your speakers, and that everything was well organised and looked “professional”. Ugly but fun was no longer how people represented themselves online, it was all about good looks and professionalism – and background music everywhere online began to die, whether on MySpace, luxury brand stores, or internet betting sites.

Browsers in control

As the web professionalised and commercialised, fewer and fewer sites wanted to stock out from the crowd and play music to people without their permission. Most people browsing the web in 2006 – 2007 were doing so from their work or home computer, and this meant they likely did not appreciate unwanted audio streaming from their laptop speakers, so the practice slowly phased out.

In fact, the issue with autoplaying audio moved from it being something websites or user profiles did, to an issue with advertising. Ads have long funded the growth of the internet, but few people want to be disturbed by audio form an autoplaying video taking over the screen, and browser developers started to take notice. Developers decided that enough was enough and advertisers could not be trusted to follow the advertising code and silence their autoplaying ads, so they did it for them – by default silencing autoplaying video and audio

The future

It is unlikely browser developers like Google and Mozilla will cede ground to aggressive advertisers that make the world a worse place for the public with their flashy and loud ads. However, not everyone wants all audio silenced by default, and Google did recently have to reverse their policy on blocking all audio by default in Chrome as it broke some games, so whilst noisy ads remain blocked, those that just want to play a game at punt casino or any of their other favourite sites can again do so with ease.

Photograph by StockSnap

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