Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Web pioneer: Can the 'Net's 'original sin' be undone?

As the Internet as we know it turns 20, one of the Internet's pioneers (and inventor of hated pop-up ads) hopes it's not too late to build a different kind of Web, one not built on ad revenue:

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services. 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. 

Building the Web on ads leads directly to the thing we like the least about it: lack of data privacy:

Once we’ve assumed that advertising is the default model to support the Internet, the next step is obvious: We need more data so we can make our targeted ads appear to be more effective. Cegłowski explains, “We’re addicted to ‘big data’ not because it’s effective now, but because we need it to tell better stories.” So we build businesses that promise investors that advertising will be more invasive, ubiquitous, and targeted and that we will collect more data about our users and their behavior.

Even so, Zuckerman admits that our ad-supported Web has made it "flat" and accessible:

The great benefit of an ad supported web is that it’s a web open to everyone. It supports free riders well, which has been key in opening the web to young people and those in the developing world. Ad support makes it very easy for users to “try before they buy,” eliminating the hard parts of the sales cycle, and allowing services like Twitter, Facebook, and Weibo to scale to hundreds of millions of users at an unprecedented rate.

Zuckerman argues that there are four main downsides to an ad-supported Web:

  • First, [...] it’s hard to imagine online advertising without surveillance. 
  • Second, [...] it creates incentives to produce and share content that generates pageviews and mouse clicks, but little thoughtful engagement.
  • Third, the advertising model tends to centralize the web. [...] Companies like Facebook want get as much of that money as possible, which means chasing users and reach. Using cash from investors and ad sales, they can acquire smaller companies that are starting to build rival networks. 
  • Finally, [...] personalization [of the Web] means that two readers of The New York Times may seen a very different picture of the world, and that two users of Facebook certainly do, shaped both by our choice of friends and by Facebook’s algorithms. [T]hese personalized sites may lead us into echo chambers, filter bubbles, or other forms of ideological isolation that divide us into rival camps that cannot agree on anything, including a set of common facts on which we could build a debate.
So on what business model would a different Internet run? Perhaps pay-forward schemes such Pinboard.in, and two-tiered, pay-for-Premium services, says Zuckerman. Meanwhile, online payment systems must be revamped to lower transaction costs, perhaps by switching to digital currencies. 

It doesn't sound too likely -- and Zuckerman sounds more apologetic about his role in creating this mess than hopeful it can be changed -- yet it's important to stop and realize that our young Internet didn't really have to turn out this way.

By Ethan Zuckerman
August 14, 2014 | The Atlantic

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