What Ethan Zuckerman overlooked in his Atlantic piece about Web ads

Entitling an article “The Internet’s Original Sin” is pretentious, but I’m guessing that it is an Atlantic editor’s attempt at sounding weighty while driving traffic on behalf of the publication’s ads. Irony of reading Ethan Zuckerman’s post about the consequences of Web ads aside, the author makes a compelling case that reliance of websites and social media on advertising has had unsavory side effects. The most notable is heightened surveillance as Facebook, Google et al try to discover more about who uses their services so that they can better target their ads.

Web advertising has been a vital revenue stream for big businesses and small-time website owners alike for roughly 20 years. Yahoo, Google, and Facebook were all built atop ad-supported monetization that is frequently annoying and irrelevant. Even sites like this one run ads that readers likely have little use for. Ads, in addition to the money they bring in, are good reminders that for all the incessant talk of “innovation,” that many of the Web’s biggest players have a business model not all that different from 1950s broadcast televison. People have sat through commercials for everything from Kool-Aid to Budweiser while watching TV, and now they endure sponsored content (i.e., highbrow informercials) and sidebar ads for AT&T and Groupon.

Zuckerman proposes fees that would support Web properties while removing the baggage that comes with ads. There are plenty of examples of such an approach, including Pinboard (a fee that increases fractionally for each new user), Zoho’s various services (including its ad-free webmail), and Pocket (annual subscription). Of course, paying for things upfront is a very “analog” thing to do, seen as out-of-step with the freemium economics of “digital” media. Hearing at least one prominent voice speak out for the return of Paying For Things and be applauded as forward-looking for doing so speaks volumes about the highly political, neoliberal construct commonly referred to as “the Internet.”

When many individuals talk about “the Internet,” they aren’t talking about basic IP connectivity and moreover they’re not talking about a medium in the same sense that ones speaks of “television” or “radio,” both of which are treated basically as dumb conduits for content and programming. No, the Internet is a whole suite of ideas about Whig history and neoliberal economics, one that is almost always referred to positively as a non-human champion for progress. Even its flaws – surveillance, ads – are seen as the morally wrong actions of individuals trying to ruin an objectively good thing. It’s absurd to think of talking about any other communications medium this way – no one is going to write about the original sin of TV or how radio is disrupting X or Y. Those media aren’t regarded as singular forces. 

I have long wondered why this was the case. Was “the Internet” really unique? It’s essentially an extension of technologies dating back to the telegraph, and its impact on human welfare is less than that of humble inventions such as the washing machine. But I was overlooking the obvious answer: “the Internet” is an enormous revenue opportunity for the private sector, particularly Silicon Valley. This sentence from Zuckerman’s piece resonated:

“Most investors know your company won’t grow to have a billion users, as Facebook does. So you’ve got to prove that your ads will be worth more than Facebook’s”

Nothing wrong with this sentence. It’s a great breakdown of the weird pressures currently shaping monetization on the Web. But did you notice something odd about this sentence, and about most of the article? It’s exclusively about private services stewarded by for-profit corporations. It’s almost as if the only organizations that exist are startups, and that issues with “the Internet” are moral rather than political.

It seems taboo to talk about the possibility of, say, a public and free equivalent of Facebook, Reddit, or Google. It’s cliche to refer to “the Internet” as the largest library ever, but it’s really not, at least not in its heavily politicized state in 2014. Libraries are generally run for the public good, or for the benefit of a smaller group of people (university students and professors) who have subsidized in other settings and can utilize it as a space for thinking, without seeing ads everywhere or trading data for personalized book recommendations. In contrast, “The Internet” is a cash machine for the private sector. Likewise, “the Internet” isn’t akin to an essential utility like electricity or water for similar reasons, plus it’s used mostly for leisure (another indication of the level of value it contributes to society).

It seems short-sighted to propose an end to free/privatized services so that we can have paid/privatized services, as if these two business models were all there were to the Web. Since the Web is so often used to look up information and instituted as a human right (absurdly, I think, but that’s another conversation), why not treat it like water or electricity or any of the other essentials that it is compared to when speaking of “the Internet”? Why not make it a public library? Right, because there’s too much money at stake, and so much political power rides upon treating “the Internet” as an all-powerful force best left to the private sector. In the West, we’ve been knee-deep in neoliberalism so long that it’s hard to realize that inquiry really could extend beyond how we pay for things and instead take up the questions of who benefits, and should they.

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