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The Shadow of the Web

Chris Grundemann

I believe in the Internet

As an ideal. As a web of human minds. As a wonder of the world, not built through totalitarian control but rather through fierce coopetition. As a technological pillar held up by a newer, better, governance structure. As the facilitator of knowledge sharing and communication on a level so advanced that it would appear supernatural to folks living just a century ago, or less.

I worry for the Internet

While it has been a major disruptive force, it is also susceptible to the existing paradigm. You can't actually give away free services. Output requires input. The Internet, and our favorite interface to it, the Web, must be paid for. Today, we buy our Internet connection directly, but our use of the Web is mostly "free." Capitalism works by customers paying for goods and services. What do you pay to use Facebook? Twitter? Instagram? Snapchat? Periscope? Etc. Nothing. So how are they funded? Ads. Most adults seem to understand this, at least on some level. What we may fail to grasp is what that means about our relationship with these companies. We don't pay, so we're not the customers. That means that these services are not built for us. Who are they built for? The customers. The companies who want to sell you stuff. They pay for your eyes and for your history and for your habits. Moo.

The dream I believe in is one of freedom through unfettered access to information and ubiquitous communication. But we've already signed up as cattle to be data mined, profiled, and targeted with ads.

Users vs. Customers

If you're not the customer, the service is not built for you. Only the folks who pay get to have a voice. Your needs are met only as far as the ROI stretches. Keeping users happy is of course a priority. Happy cows make better milk, right? But make no mistake — the service is built to the specifications of the people paying for it. I think of this every time a platform like Facebook changes something and people complain. We "users" are not the customers. How much care is taken to ensure the cattle like the color of the new milker? This is why our complaints go largely unanswered.

Don't take this the wrong way. I'm not against capitalism. I don't think these companies shouldn't make money. But I do think it's important to understand where you fit in the business relationship. When I'm the customer, I should expect what I pay for. When I'm the merchant, I should get paid for providing the expected, to my customer. When I'm the product, I don't really have much say in the transaction.

This is the shadow we find ourselves in

The potential of the Internet is there. The potential for each individual to learn literally anything they're willing to study. The potential to meet and stay in touch with friends all over the world. The potential to share your ideas and your talents without any gatekeepers. To develop empathy. To resist and even remove tyranny. The potential to become a truly global people. We're still distracted by consumerism though. We satiate our whims so easily that we stop striving. Rome had it's gladiators; we have same day shipping. The constant bombardment of advertisements shapes our view of the world, if even subtly. It focuses us towards thoughts and behaviors that lead to sales; not towards freedom, full expression of self, and authentic community. Worse yet, that barrage is aimed by studying our digital footprints. Retailers (and politicians) are constantly using our own data to get better at influencing our behavior. Queue the cheesey 80s sci-fi distopian mega-corporation future backdrop.

How do we get out of the shadow?

We pay.

I don't think ad driven websites and applications should go away. I do think there should be other options when using the Web. Shareware was an early model of opt-in payment. Today this idea has morphed into freemium services. Spotify, Dropbox, and Evernote are examples. You can listen to music on Spotify (and Pandora) for free, supported by advertisements. You can also pay for "premium" service, which removes the ads (and often adds features). More options like this are a step in the right direction. By paying for a service, you become a customer, and find your voice.

There are challenges.

  • Nothing is cheaper than Free. It's hard to sell something that people already accept as being free. While this is surely a challenge, it's one I think a bit of creative marketing can handle — especially if combined with increased social awareness. How many bottles of water get sold each day (and at what premium over the tap water that fills them)? If there is added value, most people can likely be convinced to pay for it. I've heard many tales of kids who stopped illegally downloading music for free as soon as electronic stores, single song pricing, and streaming services came along. The same is likely true for any sufficiently enhanced product or service. What could a social platform offer you to be worth paying for?
  • Services need users. Many web applications rely on a network effect. No one wants to be on a "social" platform by themselves. And when you want lots of people to do something, removing barriers is key. Payment is a barrier, especially for a new network. The best bet would take an existing network and convert it to a user pay model. Unfortunately, it's more likely that we'd see a combination than a true pivot. Like Netflix adding ads to a paid service. Or like Facebook offering a paid premium service while still collecting and selling user data. Not ideal. A new upstart will be hard to start, and there has to be upside for it to survive. This means that webizens would have to be willing to pay, en masse, for a web application with data privacy and features built to their wants and needs. They also have to be willing to switch. Diaspora was an attempt that hasn't worked out just yet. I hold hope that people will demand this soon. More privacy, more options, and less ads.
  • Ad revenue is existing revenue. How do you charge for search? The most popular site on the globe is a free search engine. It makes sense. Do you remember crawling the web before modern search engines? I do. It took much longer to find what you were looking for on the pre-Google web, if you ever found it. This engine of the web is ad supported. In fact, all of Google's services are. What's the alternative? Pay-per-search? Pay-per-view YouTube? While perhaps possible, this conversion destroys an existing, lucrative, revenue stream. It wouldn't be fiscally responsible to give up ads in favor of user rights. This is why we must look for upstarts.

Help wanted.

I wish I had a more concrete solution to propose. Instead, I'll ask all of you to help out.

We need to discover how to harness the power of the Internet without compromising quite so much in the process. We need to stop being happy with what we're given. Remember that there was a time before Google and Facebook, before Twitter, before Apple and Microsoft and Amazon. A time before the web. Change is the only constant. Remember too that new products and services are great, but new business models are what's truly disruptive.

We can live private lives in a digital age. We can take full advantage of the Internet without selling our souls to the highest bidder. Help me prove it.

By Chris Grundemann, Internet Technologist, Author, and Speaker; Principal Architect at Myriad Supply
Related topics: Privacy, Web
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