So what ails the internet, you ask?
Luckily for you, Maciej Cegłowski and Ethan Zuckerman recently wrote two great pieces expounding on that very topic. Maciej’s text of a speech he gave at Beyond Tellerrand in Germany offers a broad survey of the built-in problems of the digital world; Ethan’s article focuses on the impact of making advertising the default business model of the internet.
Both pieces are smart, funny, depressing, insightful and well worth reading. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Or you should.
But beyond encouraging you to slit your wrists while smiling, they’re also great reminders of the importance of taking a breather from chasing the latest trend – mobile! internet of things! social! big data! – to step back and survey how the basic architecture of the web, from the way it’s built to how it’s regulated to where its funding comes from, affects our lives, our industry and our journalism. It’s also a great reminder of how relatively new, unformed and plastic the landscape is; and how every time it evolves – which is to say, pretty much every year – the ground potentially shifts again.
The clearest example is in how the media business responded to the chase for advertising dollars, a consequence of what Ethan calls “the original sin of the web.”
Through successive rounds of innovation and investor storytime, we’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles (which they cannot review, challenge, or change) that shape both what ads and what content they see.
(We’ll get to “investor storytime” in a sec.)
It’s true that we’ve all bought into a notion of data profiling as the price of a myriad of online services, and Ethan is right to focus his outrage and attention on that, but I’m just as unhappy about what it’s done to journalism, as Ethan also notes:
Second, not only does advertising lead to surveillance through the “investor storytime” mechanism, it creates incentives to produce and share content that generates pageviews and mouse clicks, but little thoughtful engagement.
And it’s true: Much of the way ads are structured online encourages the disaggregation of content into pageview-friendly chunks. There’s much less incentive to create more engaging and immersive experiences – beyond their ability, of course, to generate more clicks and pageviews. It’s not a world particularly friendly to a Connected China or Theyrule, for example.
Not that they – and other structured journalism-type sites such as Politifact and Homicide Watch – couldn’t exist in an ad-driven world. After all, one of the notions behind structured journalism is the idea that we can both extend the shelf-life of our daily work as well as generate content more cost-effectively.
But the broader problem, in a world where online ad rates are minuscule, is that news organizations have to try to pull together huge audiences to cover their costs – and very few can. Consider that Facebook, a platform that arguably has the most information about us and manages to keep us on their site for an online eternity, only manages to earn about a penny an hour per user. It takes hundreds of millions of users to scale that up meaningfully. (Interestingly, Buzzfeed, which is one of those that can draw huge crowds, doesn’t really make its money off traffic to its site per se.)
The net result has been a race for traffic, often at the expense of engagement, that hardly anyone in the journalism business can win.
(Although it should be noted that Jeff Jarvis disagrees with Ethan’s conclusions – he agrees that bad ads are a problem, but: “Instead, I say we should be demanding smarter advertising: more relevant, more transparent, more respectful, more trustworthy, less noisy, less wasteful of their money and our time and attention.”)
In any case, it’s not really advertising that’s driving this particular dysfunction of the internet – it’s the promise of advertising. Or what Maciej calls “investor storytime.”
Recall that advertising is when someone pays you to tell your users they’ll be happy if they buy a product or service.
Yahoo is an example of a company that runs on advertising. Gawker is a company that runs on advertising.
Investor storytime is when someone pays you to tell them how rich they’ll get when you finally put ads on your site.
Pinterest is a site that runs on investor storytime. Most startups run on investor storytime.
Investor storytime is not exactly advertising, but it is related to advertising. Think of it as an advertising future, or perhaps the world’s most targeted ad.
Both business models involve persuasion. In one of them, you’re asking millions of listeners to hand over a little bit of money. In the other, you’re persuading one or two listeners to hand over millions of money.
Maciej doesn’t confine himself to critiquing the funding model of the internet – he skewers its too-efficient memory for things we’d rather forget, the centralization of power in a handful of companies, and the clash between online and offline behavioral norms that we’re only slowly evolving. Personal data, for example, is stored in multiple places and is largely beyond our control once we offer it up to a site.
These big collections of personal data are like radioactive waste. It’s easy to generate, easy to store in the short term, incredibly toxic, and almost impossible to dispose of. Just when you think you’ve buried it forever, it comes leaching out somewhere unexpected.
And, he adds:
What happens if Facebook hires their own Snowden, someone who for ideological reasons decides that data should be published?
Still, not all of these issues are all bad. As Ethan notes, an ad-supported – or investor storytime-supported – internet allows for companies to spin up more quickly and acquire users fast. And at least in theory, the persistence of information on the web – and I mean content, not personal data – should allow us to develop news products that build on old data and reporting, not unlike Homicide Watch and Politifact. Not that many do, but I remain hopeful, if only because I think it’s one path to a sustainable future.
Both Ethan and Maciej seems cautiously optimistic that there are ways to get around these flaws in the architecture, and there probably are. In any case, there isn’t any one magic solution – all architectures have strengths and weaknesses, intended and unintended consequences. The trick is recognizing them, and working to minimize the problems they create.
As Ethan notes:
There is no single “right answer” to the question of how we pay for the tool that lets us share knowledge, opinions, ideas, and photos of cute cats. Whether we embrace micropayments, membership, crowdfunding, or any other model, there are bound to be unintended consequences.
But 20 years in to the ad-supported web, we can see that our current model is bad, broken, and corrosive. It’s time to start paying for privacy, to support services we love, and to abandon those that are free, but sell us—the users and our attention—as the product.