Our comments, food pics, shares, searches and online reviews are worth money. Why aren't we getting a cut? Thanks to blockchain and crypto economics, we will.
If you’re reading this, you’re doing good and keep going! But you’re also kind of a sucker. Sorry. Every search you type that leads here, every click you make, every time you like an article on Facebook, share something with friends, and write a Social Media post that gets traction with others - your actions are making someone money. Probably a big tech company. So why aren’t you getting a piece of the pie?
To answer this, we need to understand how the internet is free, who gains from this model, who pays the price, and what we can do to change the way the internet makes money so that more people benefit from it.
Free content for sale
The idealists who shaped this revolutionary technology made the decision, with good intentions, that everything on the internet should be free. The inventor of the world wide web didn’t copyright www. for that very reason. If the internet were to remain democratic and open, everyone would have access to it. The only hitch to this utopian plan was that they did it in a capitalist context. That’s right. For-profit companies were supposed to give away their product for free.
How do you keep things free, while making sure business booms? The answer big tech companies had was Ads. Everyone would have free access to stockpiles of information, and the only price to pay would be exposure to commercials. The problem is that the advertising model that once kept publications alive didn’t work as well online. It was no longer enough to promise exposure; advertisers now need clicks, leading to sponsored content camouflaged as real content, aggressive clickbait and fake news. What’s worse, it’s led to the demand to create content that grabs the most attention and hits our engagement threshold. This is where things get disturbing: it turns out that it's easier to get people’s attention if you scare them (Trump), or anger them (Trump), or make them jealous (Trump, and vacation pics). “Outrage spreads faster”, says ethical design guru Tristan Harris, and the AIs that manage our feeds give us what we respond to.
The current incentive structure on these free digital platforms brings the worst out of people, hence the ubiquity of bullying and shaming online, horrible threads of comments tailing articles, petty and even vengeful reviews and, you guest it, the master of sensationalism (Trump).
As the revolutionary tech companies grew bigger and smarter, so did their algorithms, creating those infamous echo chambers and feedback loops that everyone was buzzing about in 2017. While the model works supremely well for unicorn tech companies like GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) - which have mastered the art of direct targeting and incentivizing attention grabbers - it doesn’t work as well for their users. This seemingly simple model, that keeps things free while making (loads of) money, has turned into mass behaviorism. According to computer philosopher Jaron Lanier, who inspired many of the ideas in this article, this system creates feedback loops that modify our behavior in order to literally get us to put our money where our finger is, to misuse the phrase. It’s also created a ton of bad content.
A popular argument claims that if users had to pay to use these platforms, they wouldn't abuse them as they do today. Yet paywalls haven't proved solvent in the media industry, and besides, why would profitable internet companies jeapardize their revenue stream by limiting access to their sites?
The revolution will not be televised, It’ll be streamed on demand
Ironically, TV and music industries are several steps ahead of the big internet companies, most of which are now struggling with growing consumer mistrust. Subscription services such as Netflix, Spotify and HBO shook up the entertainment industry by betting on the idea that people would pay for quality content on demand and customized to taste. They made this risky bet at a time when free TV channels multiplied and online pirating that streamed almost everything for free was in full bloom.
Not only did these companies create successful businesses - they revitalized industries that were at the time being killed off by the internet. Today, it is safe to say that we are in the golden age of TV and a great deal of it is being paid for, while musicians and record companies have completely changed the way they produce, promote and communicate music. Best of all, consumers (for the most part) feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.
A similar model could also work for the travel industry, which has seen a significant rise in the use of travel agents in the last few years, despite the abundance of online info (which some would say is TMI). Yet unlike the entertainment business, where access was the main issue, the business of travel information is gripped by a crisis of trust. Consumers are losing trust in review sites that have proven time again to serve up biased and oftentimes misleading info. The long term marriage between media outlets and ad agencies has spawned a generation of suspicious users. Add to that technological developments of the last few years, and you've got on your hand an "Infopocalypse". Yet, paradoxically, we are caught in the web (of the internet) and we are using it at record rates (in the US, people spend an average of 5 hours a day on their smartphone), and engagement rates continue to rise. How could this be? One part of it is the fact that companies that profit from our presence online don’t need us to trust them - they just need us to be engaged, and the content that does that often in the form of clickbait, sensationalism and outraging pieces.
The blockchain reaction (get it?)
“If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the consumer, you’re the product”. It’s a bloodcurdling idea voiced by artist Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman in 1973 about ads on television, and it is even more pertinent when it comes to the internet today. We give our personal data, our daily behavior, our tastes and our deepest darkest secret thoughts to the tech companies that dominate the internet, and, in turn, they optimize our feeds so that we remain engaged users. We don’t even need to buy things or have a good time. We just need to stay online for as long as physically possible.
Companies that refuse to surrender to the freemium monetization models now have another option and it’s enabled by a decentralized network of computers called blockchain.
Without going into too much detail about the fundamentals of the technology, it’s decentralized structure enables cutting out middlemen, which lead to lower transaction costs. The transparent protocols that run on the network make sure the rules of the game are clear to all and incorruptible, securing the data and encouraging a trusting environment that rewards those who contribute to its optimization, rather than those who create the most noise (like the headline to this article). The autonomous network lets all its participants take part in optimizing and improving it, and rewards those who do the best job. More than that, it creates a solid business model for companies who refuse to compromise their content and their community in order to make money. Last, but certainly not least, it makes all of us participants in the internet economy, and when the economy is healthy - we all win.
Danielle Zilberberg is Cool Cousin's Head of Content. She is a former journalist and Humanities scholar
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