Culturally, we consider things on the Internet to be free. So the idea that you’d pay even a fraction of a cent, particularly if it takes a little bit of effort to do so…doesn’t make sense to a lot of people on an emotional level.” — Colin Wright
If you’re curious why something is the way that is, the answer is (most likely) because “that’s the way it’s always been.”
Teachers stand in front of the class and lecture because that’s how we designed schools in the 18th century. The eight-hour work day is the legacy of 250-year-old labor disputes. Two weeks ago, I wrote about how we blindly believe reading is “good” because that’s what we’ve always believed.
First impressions stick. It’s as true of people as it is of habits and expectations. “How things were yesterday” is the most accurate prediction for how things will be tomorrow.
So with that in mind, let’s talk about the Internet.
How Google Ruined the Internet
The Internet has always been free.
Not necessarily free to access, but free to surf, browse, click, read, and talk.
That’s always been the promise of the Internet — a free and open place to exchange ideas. Unlike the radio or the television or the newspaper, there are no gatekeepers. Anyone can log on, claim to some “land,” and start sharing whatever they want.
And share they have.
A far cry from the widespread 90’s belief that the Internet was nothing more than a passing fad, the Internet has only gotten easier to access and easier to use.
But the Internet as we know it today was not a forgone conclusion. In fact, the Internet we know today primarily came about because of choices made by a single company — Google.
“The production of non-product content flourished. And the reason it that it flourished, the reason that we expect everything on the Internet, more or less, to be free is because of what happened during this time period. Because Google, and a few other companies, but primarily Google created this system in which you could make a living off of other people’s attention. You could make a living off on how many eyeballs came to your site and how many clicks you could generate.” — Colin Wright
By introducing an easy way to host ads on a personal site and generate revenue from clicks, Google (and those like them) created a system that incentivized free content, paid for by advertisers.*
*I am obviously oversimplifying, but this has been the general trend — and if you want to learn more about this, listen to Colin Wright’s podcast on this topic.
And while plenty of people create(d) great content and deserve everything they got, there were, are, and always will be people who take advantage of the system.
You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next
Content — writing, podcasting, videos — have never been the driver of online commerce (or commerce in general). It has simply been the vehicle.
People typically don’t pay for content (and they definitely don’t on the Internet). Advertisers pay for content. Actually, they pay to associate their brands and products with that content. Because if content is good, then readers, listeners, or viewers will come. And more viewers means more ad impressions.
That means advertisers don’t actually care about the content itself — they care about the content consumers. They care (online) that consumers view or click their advertisements. Which means that if you, the creator, could get someone to view or click an advertisement without having to go through all the trouble of actually creating great content and building an audience, you’d be able to make just as much money for a fraction of the effort.
Which is how we ended up with an Internet that spews out shallow articles like “10 Quick Tips to Get 10,000 Followers,” and “The Two Minutes It Takes to Read This Will Change Your Life Forever.”
Clickbait exists because the system rewards eyeballs, not reads, listens, or watches. And despite the fact that not a single person likes clickbait, we keep clicking. We keep getting seduced by the idea that a single blog post will have the silver bullet that will get us exactly what we want.
And as long as we keep clicking, we’ll keep getting clickbait.
The Fundamental Truth
There’s no question that the Internet has transformed our society — but it hasn’t transformed the fundamental truth that you get what you pay for.
Consider Netflix — a subscription site where users pay a monthly fee, and in return get kickass TV shows like Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards. This relationship is perfect — Netflix wants to create great TV so you keep paying and you keep paying Netflix because you want them to keep making great programing.
Now consider a site like Facebook — it generates revenue not by charging its users to access the platform, but by charging advertisers to get in front of its users. The reason the platform is riddled with flaws — a cluttered newsfeed, ads that follow you around the Internet, an algorithm designed to show you what it thinks you want to see — is because Facebook was not designed with you in mind.
You are not Facebook’s customer. You are Facebook’s product.
The Internet is Not a Business, But it Should Be
In the real world, here’s how businesses work: they create a product, you pay them money for that product, they use your money to make their product better. If the company doesn’t follow those steps, then they go out of business.
But the Internet has made a new kind of business possible — one that can be built on someone else’s money and someone else’s attention, which means that the incentives are all out of whack.
“If you’re not paying for something, chances are you are what’s being sold…it’s your attention, your clicks, your time…” — Colin Wright
It’s no one’s fault. It’s just how we’ve been brought up. It’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect. It’s how things have always been done. And even though I try to pay for digital products, I’m much quicker to spend $4 on a coffee or $15 on a t-shirt while dismissing a $3 app as “too expensive.”
But someone’s gotta pay for it.
So we get articles with titles like “A Homeless Man Walked Up to a Little Girl and You Won’t Believe What Happens Next.” We get intrusive Facebook ads that violate our privacy and follow us around the web. We get websites that are almost unusable because they’re overrun with ads (Forbes, I’m looking at you).
You get what you pay for. And when you don’t pay, you shouldn’t be surprised that what you get is garbage.
- Colin Wright’s awesome podcast, Let’s Know Things (and specifically, this episode)
- The Factory Model School
- The Eight Hour Work Day
- Jack Conte on Why Clickbait Exists
- A survey on whether or not people would pay for an ad-free Facebookaccount
- A funny interview about one scientist’s opinion on the Internet in 1996