The internet as television

One of the biggest generational schisms on the internet today (besides your level of gif game) is your connection to the idea of the “free and open web.”

Anyone in their mid-20s or younger does not remember an internet not utterly dominated by today’s giant digital platforms. After all, the idea of having a full, unencumbered internet experience without ever needing a Google or Facebook account is pretty much inconceivable now. All ecommerce roads eventually lead back to Amazon. All your online activity is tracked and monitored in order to “optimize” your “experience,” which turns out to mean targeting ads to you from the highest bidder. Much of the content you see online is predetermined by an algorithm that shows you what you’re statistically most likely to “engage” with.

By contrast, those of us who came of age in the 90s or earlier remember the days of BBSes, Usenet forums and hand-coded HTML pages that you FTPed to a server with a script and a prayer. The internet of those days was a distinctly outsider-ish nerd culture in which eccentricity and creativity thrived. No real tracking was even possible, and the idea of “platforms” didn’t really exist. No one spent hours photoshopping splashy landing pages or fiddling with carousels, because that would’ve been impossible for most folks to download on their 4800-baud connection. (Kids these days have no idea what that even means.)

This is not to pine for the “good old days.” That early web was mostly a niche monoculture of nerdy white guys who had a bit of disposable income to spend on their “internet” hobby. In lots of ways, the web is a far better, more interesting and democratic place now that access to the internet is cheap and widespread. Yet the tragedy of the commons has played out in a new way. When the number of people online kept increasing by orders of magnitude, the platforms that emerged (and survived) were those that not only successfully grabbed eyeballs, but kept and monetized them most effectively and efficiently. That effect has been compounding for almost twenty years now, which leads us to where we are now: an internet that more and more resembles the bad old days of television.

The promise of the internet was that of a panoply of riches; a nearly limitless tapestry of human potential where geography was no longer a factor. But what we’ve gotten is rather the opposite. The vast audiences of the internet are mostly guarded by gatekeepers who are careful to extract and monetize your identity for access. Rather than radically democratizing economic opportunity, the internet has done just the opposite, hyperconcentrating it in a just a few metro areas (and mostly for just a few types of people). Just as television was built in the Hollywood complex, so has tech’s center of gravity remained in Silicon Valley.

This was not what we were promised.

Being creative on the internet

The experience of creatives on the web is instructive.

If you listen to online communities of creatives (artists, writers, musicians, and the like), opinion is deeply split about whether the internet has been good for them or not. (I am personally a hobbyist fiction writer, and active in some of those circles.) At first glance, this sounds odd. The web theoretically gives them access to a nearly unlimited new audience, right? Yet the very platforms that creatives must use to reach those audiences – those like Facebook, Google/YouTube, Amazon, or even slightly more targeted ones like Etsy – also utterly commodify them. The internet’s winner-take-all dynamic creates a tiny class of fabulously successful artists and then a very long tail of everyone else. “Standing out” is incredibly difficult, and usually requires aggressive social marketing efforts that – surprise! – aren’t free.

An interesting example of this is one of my favorite musicians: Zoë Keating. Keating is a widely known and highly accomplished cellist and composer. She writes, composes, plays and tours widely, and has released a number of very successful albums. Keating enjoys a level of success that is beyond the wildest imagination of even the most talented musicians. A few years ago, Keating summed up and released a Google Sheets summary of her music income. Her total was about $81,000 (presumably pre-tax), of which 93% was plain ol’ album sales (mostly through iTunes). (This is also before she will be forced to spend between $10-$15k on health insurance.)

Obviously, no one becomes a musician or artist to get rich, but this sure looks like a failure of the web to me.

Think about this incredible fact: there are, existing right at this moment, tons of creative products that you, dear reader, would truly love, if only you knew about them – music, art, stories, and more. The problem is that you don’t know about them yet and they don’t know how to find you. This “discovery” problem is one that no platform on the web has really bothered to address in a meaningful way, because it fundamentally conflicts with how they make money. The “Facebook for products,” whatever that means, still hasn’t emerged. Some people believe that’s because humans are inherently risk-averse and don’t really want to seek out new experiences, and that’s probably true for many. But for the web’s attention gatekeepers, helping people discover independent content outside their city walls is not a challenge they even want to take on.

Making money on the internet

In most ways, the modern web encourages consumption of content over all else. The quintessential “internet activity” for most people today is mindlessly scrolling through your Facebook feed, watching funny videos. Obviously, this form of consumption benefits Facebook first and foremost, not the content creator. This is good for “the internet as television,” but sucks for the internet as a whole.

For the web to actually empower people and unleash potential, creators need tools to build their own platforms. Tools to do that are slowly becoming more powerful – solutions like Patreon and Memberful are some of the most interesting experiments happening on the web today, because they give creators the means to produce their craft independently. A good startup idea that I hope someone is working on is an audience relations and management tool for independent creators, too. Tools like these help creators and their audiences connect directly and align their incentives to one another in a way that avoids the “fresh content now” demands of Facebook visibility.

Naturally, those companies above are also working on the “discovery” side of the problem. I suspect there’s a lot of opportunity to grow there. Fundamentally, the question is how many people on the internet are willing to pay for content that the ad-targeting platforms have convinced us is always free? The answer will probably always be a minority; but on the web, even a small minority can still mean enormous opportunity.

The web’s dominant attention gatekeepers will probably forever have a central role in internet culture. But a web rife with independent creators offering everything from journalism, to music, to stories and education outside of the boundaries of Facebook and Google would be a healthier and more interesting world to live in. In a lot of ways, it would be a turn back to the early days of the web that some of us remember, except with much more democratic participation this time. And it’s a much more appealing vision for the internet than billions of people scrolling through their Facebook feeds.

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