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The Internet's Original Sin - The Atlantic

The Internet's Original Sin


It's not too late to ditch the ad-based business model and build a better web.

Hendrik Goltzius' "The Fall of Man" (1616)


Wikimedia Commons

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN
AUG 14, 2014

TECHNOLOGY

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RonCarlsonsshortstoryWhatWeWantedToDotakestheformofanapology
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fromavillagerwhofailedtoprotecthiscomradesfrommaraudingVisigoths.It
begins:

Whatwewantedtodowasspillboilingoilontotheheadsofourenemies
astheyattemptedtobangdownthegatesofourvillage.Butaseveryone
nowknows,wehadsomeproblems,primarilytechnicalproblems,that
preventedusfromdoingwhatwewantedtodothewaywehadhopedto
doit.Whatwereaskingfortodayisanotherchance.

Thereslittlesuspenseinthestorythedisastrousoutcomeisobviousfromtherst
paragraphbutitworksbecauseofthepoignancyoftheapology.Allofushave
screwedupsituationsinourlivessobadlythatwevebeenforcedtoexplainour
actionsbyremindingeveryoneofourgoodintentions.Itsobviousnowthatwhatwe
didwasaasco,soletmeremindyouthatwhatwewantedtodowassomethingbrave
andnoble.

We ended up creating one of the most hated tools in the


advertisers toolkit: the pop-up ad.
TheascoIwanttotalkaboutistheWorldWideWeb,specically,theadvertisingsupported,freeasinbeerconstellationofsocialnetworks,services,andcontent
thatrepresentssomuchofthepresentdaywebindustry.Ivebeenthinkingofthis
world,oneIveworkedinforover20years,asaascosincereadingalectureby
MaciejCegowski,deliveredattheBeyondTellerrandwebdesignconference.
Cegowskiisanimportantandinuentialprogrammerandanenviablytalented
writer.Histalkisapatientexplanationofhowweveendedupwithsurveillanceasthe
default,ifnotsole,internetbusinessmodel.

Thetalkishilariousandinsightful,andpoignantpreciselyforthereasonsCarlsons
storyis.TheinternetspiesatusateverytwistandturnnotbecauseZuckerberg,
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Brin,andPagearescheming,sinistermasterminds,butduetogoodintentionsgone
awry.WithapologiestoCarlson:

Whatwewantedtodowastobuildatoolthatmadeiteasyforeveryone,
everywheretoshareknowledge,opinions,ideasandphotosofcutecats.
Aseveryoneknows,wehadsomeproblems,primarilybusinessmodel
problems,thatpreventedusfromdoingwhatwewantedtodothewaywe
hopedtodoit.Whatwereaskingfortodayisaconversationabouthow
wecoulddothisbetter,sincewescrewedupprettybadlythersttime
around.

Iusetherstpersonalpluraladvisedly.From1994to1999,Iworked
forTripod.com,helpingtoarchitect,design,andimplementawebsitethat
marketedcontentandservicestorecentcollegegraduates.Whenthatbusiness
failedtocatchon,webecameawebpage-hostingproviderandproto-social
network.Overthecourseofveyears,wetrieddozensofrevenuemodels,printing
outshinynewbusinessplanstoselleachone.Wedrunasasubscriptionservice!
Takeashareofrevenuewhenourusersboughtmutualfundsafterreadingour
investmentadvice!Getpaidtobundleamagazinewithtextbookpublishers!SellTshirtsandotherbrandedmerch!

Think of it as an advertising future, or perhaps the worlds


most targeted ad.
Attheendoftheday,thebusinessmodelthatgotusfundedwasadvertising.The
modelthatgotusacquiredwasanalyzinguserspersonalhomepagessowecould
bettertargetadstothem.Alongtheway,weendedupcreatingoneofthemost
hatedtoolsintheadvertiserstoolkit:thepop-upad.Itwasawaytoassociateanad
withauserspagewithoutputtingitdirectlyonthepage,whichadvertisersworried
wouldimplyanassociationbetweentheirbrandandthepagescontent.
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Specically,wecameupwithitwhenamajorcarcompanyfreakedoutthattheyd
boughtabanneradonapagethatcelebratedanalsex.Iwrotethecodetolaunch
thewindowandrunanadinit.Imsorry.Ourintentionsweregood.
CegowskisspeechexplainswhyTripodsstorysoundsfamiliar.Advertising
becamethedefaultbusinessmodelontheweb,theentireeconomicfoundationof
ourindustry,becauseitwastheeasiestmodelforawebstartuptoimplement,and
theeasiesttomarkettoinvestors.Webstartupscouldcontracttheirrevenuegrowth
toanadnetworkandfocusonbuildinganaudience.Ifrevenueswereinsucientto
coverthecostsofprovidingthecontentorservice,itdidn'tmatterwhatmattered
wasaudiencegrowth,asasitewithtensofmillionsofloyaluserswouldsurelynd
awaytogeneraterevenue.
Therearebusinesses,Cegowskinotes,thatmakemoneyfromadvertising,like
YahooandGawker.Butmostbusinessesuseadvertisinginadierentway.Their
revenuesourceisinvestorstorytime:

Investorstorytimeiswhensomeonepaysyoutotellthemhowrichtheyll
getwhenyounallyputadsonyoursite.
Pinterestisasitethatrunsoninvestorstorytime.Moststartupsrunon
investorstorytime.
Investorstorytimeisnotexactlyadvertising,butitisrelatedto
advertising.Thinkofitasanadvertisingfuture,orperhapstheworlds
mosttargetedad.
Bothbusinessmodelsinvolvepersuasion.Inoneofthem,youreasking
millionsoflistenerstohandoveralittlebitofmoney.Intheother,youre
persuadingoneortwolistenerstohandovermillionsofmoney.

Thekeypartofinvestorstorytimeispersuadinginvestorsthatyouradswillbe
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worthmorethaneveryoneelsesads.Thatsbecausemostonlineadsarentworth
verymuch.Asarule,theadsthatareworththemostmoneyarethosethatappear
whenyourereadytomakeapurchasetheadsthatappearonGooglewhenyoure
searchingforanewcarorforsomeonetorepairyourroofcanbesoldfordollarsper
clickbecauseadvertisersknowyourealreadyinterestedintheservicestheyare
oeringandthatyourelikelytomakeanexpensivepurchase.Butmostonline
advertisingdoesntfollowyourinterest;itcompetesforyourattention.Itsabarrier
youhavetoovercome(minimizingwindows,clickingitoutoftheway,ignoringit)
togettothearticleorinteractionyouwant.
AbackoftheenvelopeanalysisfromFelixStaldergivesasenseofhowlittletheseads

areworth.Lastquarter,Facebookreportedthatithad1.32billionusers,collected
$2.91billioninrevenueandmadeaprotof$791million,foraprotmarginof27
percent.Facebookisclearlydoingagreatjobmakingmoneyfromads.Butthe
protperuserisjustunder$0.60.Thatsafascinatinggure,becauseFacebook
reportsthatusersspend40minutesperdayonthesite,orroughly60hoursper
quarter.
StalderisinterestedintheideathatusersareworkingforFacebook,generating
contentthatthecompanyprotsfromwithoutgettingcompensated.Butevenifwe
ignoretheimportantideaoffreeculturallaborthatmakesabusinesslikeFacebook
(orTripod!)possible,itsstrikingthatourattention,asviewers,isworthonlya
pennyanhourtoFacebooksadvertisers.

Demonstrating that youre going to target more and better


than Facebook requires moving deeper into the world of
surveillance.
DonMartiusesthesamesetofFacebookearningnumberstodemonstratethat
printnewspapersmakeroughlyfourtimesasmuchmoneyinadvertisingas
FacebookdoesintheUnitedStates.Printadvertisinggeneratestheseenviable,if
shrinking,numbersdespitecapturingonlyabout14minutesadayofAmericans
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attention.Thisprintdollars,digitaldimesproblemisanapparentparadox:Why
aretargeteddigitaladsworthanorderofmagnitudelessthanuntargetedprintads,
intermsofattentionminutes?Martiarguesthatadvertisinginapublicplace,like
anewspapers,buildsbrandsinawaythatprivate,targetedadscant.(Iveargued
thatthisisalegacyeectandthatprintadswillfallinpriceoncethereareecient
digitalwaystoreachthemajorityofconsumersinamarket.)
Cegowskitellsusthatitdoesntmatter.
Thepoorperformanceofdigitaladsjustmakesinvestorstorytimemore
compelling.AftershowinghowpoorYouTubestargetedadsareinunderstanding
himasaconsumer,heexplains,Ofcourse,foradsellers,thecrappinessof
targetedadsisafeature!Itmeanstheresvastroomforimprovement.Somany
storiestotelltheinvestors.
Mostinvestorsknowyourcompanywontgrowtohaveabillionusers,asFacebook
does.SoyouvegottoprovethatyouradswillbeworthmorethanFacebooks.In
1997,IarguedthatTripodsusersweremorevaluabletoadvertisersthanthe
averagewebuserbecauseIcouldusealgorithmstoanalyzethehomepagesthey
postedandtargetadstotheirinterestsanddemographicdata.Facebookmakesa
vastlymoresophisticatedversionofthatargument,andfacesproblemsmuchlike
thosewefacedalmosttwodecadesago.Targetingtointent(asGooglessearchads
do)workswell,whiletargetingtodemographics,psychographicsorstatedinterests
(asFacebookdoes)worksmarginallybetterthannottargetingatall.
DemonstratingthatyouregoingtotargetmoreandbetterthanFacebookrequires
movingdeeperintotheworldofsurveillancetrackingusers'mobiledevicesas
theymovethroughthephysicalworld,assemblingmorecomplexuserprolesby
tradinginformationbetweendatabrokers.
OnceweveassumedthatadvertisingisthedefaultmodeltosupporttheInternet,
thenextstepisobvious:Weneedmoredatasowecanmakeourtargetedads
appeartobemoreeective.Cegowskiexplains,Wereaddictedtobigdatanot
becauseitseectivenow,butbecauseweneedittotellbetterstories.Sowebuild
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businessesthatpromiseinvestorsthatadvertisingwillbemoreinvasive,ubiquitous,
andtargetedandthatwewillcollectmoredataaboutourusersandtheirbehavior.
***
Ihavecometobelievethatadvertisingistheoriginalsinoftheweb.Thefallenstate
ofourInternetisadirect,ifunintentional,consequenceofchoosingadvertisingas
thedefaultmodeltosupportonlinecontentandservices.Throughsuccessive
roundsofinnovationandinvestorstorytime,wevetrainedInternetuserstoexpect
thateverythingtheysayanddoonlinewillbeaggregatedintoproles(whichthey
cannotreview,challenge,orchange)thatshapebothwhatadsandwhatcontent
theysee.Outrageoverexperimentalmanipulationoftheseprolesbysocial
networksanddatingcompanieshasledtoheateddebatesamongstthe
technologicallysavvy,buthasntshrunktheuserbasesoftheseservices,asusers
nowacceptthatthissortofmanipulationisanintegralpartoftheonline
experience.
Usershavebeensowelltrainedtoexpectsurveillancethatevenwhenwidespread,
clandestinegovernmentsurveillancewasrevealedbyawhistleblower,therehas
beenlittleorganized,publicdemandforreformandchange.Asaresult,theObama
administrationhasbeenslightlymoretransparentaboutgovernmentsurveillance
requests,buthasignoredmostoftherecommendationsmadebyhisownreview
panelandsueredfewpoliticalconsequences.OnlyhalfofAmericansbelievethat
SnowdensleaksservedthepublicinterestandthemajorityofAmericansfavor
criminalprosecutionforthewhistleblower.Itsunlikelythatourwillingnessto
acceptonlinesurveillancereectsourtrustintheAmericangovernment,whichisat
historiclows.Morelikely,wevebeentaughtthatthisissimplyhowtheInternet
works:Ifweopenourselvestoever-increasingsurveillancewhetherfrom
corporationsorgovernmentsthetoolsandcontentwewantwillremainfreeof
cost.
Atthispointinthestory,itsprobablyworthremindingyouthatourintentionswere
good.

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WhatIwantedtodowastobuildatoolthatallowedeveryonetohavethe
opportunitytoexpressthemselvesandbeheardfromanywherefromafewfriends
totheentireglobe.In1995,therewerentalotofwaystooerpeoplefreewebpage
hostingandmakemoney.Chargingusersfortheservicewouldhaveblockedmost
ofourpotentialcustomersmostoftheworldstilldoesnthaveacreditcardtoday,
andfewerdidin1995.E-paymentsystemslikePayPaldidntcomeonlineuntil
1999.ButbecauseTripodsserviceswerefreeandadsupported,usersaroundthe
worldfoundusandbeganpostingwebpagestheycouldnothostelsewhere.
In1996,wenoticedthatthemajorityofouruserswerecomingfromfourcountries:
theUnitedStates,Canada,theU.K.,andMalaysia.Sincenoneofourcontentwasin
BahasaMalayandsincewedneverdoneanyoutreachtoMalaysianusers,thiswas
asurprise.IstartedprintingoutheavilytrackedwebpagespostedbyMalaysian
usersandbroughtasheafofthemtoaprofessoratnearbyWilliamsCollege,who
readthemoverandinformedmethatwehadbecomeamajorvehiclefor
expressionforMalaysiasoppositionpoliticalgroup,AnwarIbrahim'sReformasi
movement.
TheadoptionofTripodbyMalaysianactivistswasnotdirectlyduetoouruseofan
ad-supportedmodel,butitwasanunintended,positiveconsequence.Wecouldnt
ndawaytomakemoneyfromadvertisingtoMalaysianusers,andwehadinternal
discussionsaboutwhetherweshouldcutourlossesandprovideservicesonlyto
usersincountrieswherewecouldselladvertising,conversationsthatFacebookand
otherad-supportedcompaniesarenowwrestlingwithastheyexpandinthe
developingworld.Imgladthatwemadetherightdecision(morally,ifnotscally)
andthatFacebook,thusfar,hasdonesoaswell.

The primary benet of online advertising is the ability to


see whos looking at an ad.
Thegreatbenetofanadsupportedwebisthatitsawebopentoeveryone.It
supportsfreeriderswell,whichhasbeenkeyinopeningthewebtoyoungpeople
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andthoseinthedevelopingworld.Adsupportmakesitveryeasyforuserstotry
beforetheybuy,eliminatingthehardpartsofthesalescycle,andallowingservices
likeTwitter,Facebook,andWeibotoscaletohundredsofmillionsofusersatan
unprecedentedrate.This,inturnhaspowerfulnetworkeects:Onceallyourhigh
schoolclassmatesareonFacebook,theresastrongtemptationtojoin,evenifyou
dontlikethetermsofservice,asitsanecientwaytokeepintouchwiththat
socialcircle.
Intheory,anad-supportedsystemismoreprotectiveofprivacythanatransactional
one.Subscriptionsormicropaymentsresolvedviacreditcardcreateastronglink
betweenonlineandreal-worldidentity,whileadshavetraditionallybeentargeted
tothecontenttheyappearwith,nottothedemo/psychographicidentityoftheuser.
Inpractice,partofFacebooksrelentlessdrivetoensureallusersarepersonally
identiableistoimprovetargetingandreassureadvertisersthattheirmessagesare
reachingrealhumanbeings.
Andwhilewereconsideringthebenetsofanad-supportedweb,itsworth
exploringtheideathattheadoptionofadvertisingasabusinessmodelnormalized
thewebmuchmorequicklythanitotherwisewouldhavespread.Companieslike
Tripodworkedtoconvincemassivecompaniesthatwereatleastadecadefrom
sellingonline,likeautomanufacturers,thattheyneededapresenceonthewebto
buildtheirbrandinanimportantnewmedia.(SecondLifeunsuccessfullytriedthe
samestrategyadecadelater,persuadingPontiactoopendealershipsforvirtual
cars.)Takingasmallportionoftheautoindustrysvastadbudgetallowed
companiestopersuadeinvestorsthatonlineadvertisingwouldbehugeandbrought
thosecompaniesonlineyearsbeforetheyhadabusinessneedtodoso.
***
Anadsupportedwebgrowsquicklyandisopentothosewhocantorwontpay.But
ithasatleastfourdownsidesasadefaultbusinessmodel.
First,whileadvertisingwithoutsurveillanceispossibleunveriableadvertisingwas
theonlytypeofadvertisingthroughmostofthe20thcenturyitshardtoimagine
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onlineadvertisingwithoutsurveillance.Theprimarybenetofonlineadvertisingis
theabilitytoseewhoslookingatanad.Simplypayingforonlineadvertising
requiressurveillance,ifonlytoeliminateclickfraud.AndifCegowskistheoryis
true,theresnoapparentescapefromescalatingsurveillancetocreatemore
attractivebusinesspropositions.
Second,notonlydoesadvertisingleadtosurveillancethroughtheinvestor
storytimemechanism,itcreatesincentivestoproduceandsharecontentthat
generatespageviewsandmouseclicks,butlittlethoughtfulengagement.Clickbait
hasbecomesoprominentthatevenUpworthy,popularizerofspreadablemediaasa
toolforsocialchange,isaskingadvertiserstoconsiderhowmuchattentionreaders
arepayingtocontent,ratherthanhowmanypageviewsitgenerates.Somenew
mediaempiresaresoattachedtoadvertisingmetricsthattheyaregivingwriters
daysofromtracwhoringdutytoallowthemtoproducecontentthathas
greatersocialandinformationalvalue.Whilemanynewspapersareshieldingtheir
reportersfromstatisticsaboutwhethertheirstoriesarebeingread,theincreasing
importanceofdigitalnewsoutletstothepublicspheresuggestswemaygetless
newsthathelpsusengageascitizensandmorenewsdesignedtogetustoclickthe
nextpagebutton.

If youre not paying for your bookmarking, then someone


else is, and their interests may not be aligned with yours.
Third,theadvertisingmodeltendstocentralizetheweb.Advertisersaredesperate
toreachlargeaudiencesasthereachofanyindividualchannelshrinks.A
generationago,youcouldreachasignicantfractionthetheAmericanpopulation
bybuyingadtimeonfourtelevisionnetworks.Veryfewcompaniescanoerthat
Superbowladreachtoday.Advertiserspurchaseadsscatteredacrosshundredsof
sites,buyingdemographictargetingatthelowestratesavailable.Companieslike
Facebookwantgetasmuchofthatmoneyaspossible,whichmeanschasingusers
andreach.Usingcashfrominvestorsandadsales,theycanacquiresmaller
companiesthatarestartingtobuildrivalnetworks.(SeeFacebooksacquisition
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ofInstagramand,toalesserextent,WhatsApp.)Thiscentralizationhasdangersfor
onlinespeechitmeansdecisionstheseplatformstaketobanspeechareas
powerfulasdecisionsmadebygovernments,asRebeccaMacKinnonhas
eloquentlydocumented.
Finally,evenattemptstomitigateadvertisingsdownsideshaveconsequences.To
compensateusforourexperienceofcontinualsurveillance,manywebsitespromise
personalizationofcontenttomatchourinterestsandtastes.(Bygivingplatforms
informationonourinterests,weare,ofcourse,generatingmoreadtargeting
information.)
ThispersonalizationmeansthattworeadersofTheNewYorkTimesmayseenavery
dierentpictureoftheworld,andthattwousersofFacebookcertainlydo,shaped
bothbyourchoiceoffriendsandbyFacebooksalgorithms.Researchsuggeststhat
thesepersonalizedsitesmayleadusintoechochambers,lterbubbles,orother
formsofideologicalisolationthatdivideusintorivalcampsthatcannotagreeon
anything,includingasetofcommonfactsonwhichwecouldbuildadebate.While
manyhavewrittenonthistopic(andIwroteabookonit),fewhaveshownthe
implicationsofoverpersonalizationaswellasGiladLotandidinthisrecentanalysis
ofmediaconsumptioninIsraelandPalestine,wherehedescribestheview
participantsinthecurrentGazawarhaveoftheconictaspersonalized
propaganda.
Itseasiertorantabouttechnologythanitistoproposesolutions.ToCegowskis
credit,hecloseshistalkwithasetofpracticalsuggestionsaboutlimitswemightput
ontheuseofdigitaldatabyadvertisers.Hedemandsthatwebegivenarightto
reviewanddeletedatacompaniesholdonus,proposesatimelimitonhowlong
datacanbeheldandhowitcanbeshared.Implementingtheseregulations,of
course,wouldrequirendingaregulatorwithteeth,anditsnotclearthatthe
FederalTradeCommissionwouldbewillingtoenforcesuchconstraintson
companiesthatarebecomingpowerfulactorsinWashington.
Moreimportantly,Cegowskioersusawayforwardthroughhisownactions.
CegowskiwroteandmaintainsPinboard.in,asimpleandpowerfulbookmarking
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servicewithanunusualbusinessmodel.Eachuseroftheservicepaysaone-time
fee,whichrisesafractionofacentwitheachnewuser.(WhenIsignedupfor
Pinboard,itcost$5,andnowcostsabitmorethan$10.)Thecosthasthebenetof
keepingtheservicespam-freeMetalterhasseensomeofthesamebenetsfrom
theirnominalmembershipfeeandhasmeantthattheservicehasbeenprotable
sinceitwaslaunched.Userscanupgradetoa$25-per-yearversionthatarchives
everywebpageyoubookmark,creatingapermanent,searchablearchiveofyour
journeysthroughtheweb.Cegowskipromisesthathewillneverselladsonthesite
andneverselldatatothirdparties,remindingus,Ifyourenotpayingforyour
bookmarking,thensomeoneelseis,andtheirinterestsmaynotbealignedwith
yours.
Pinboardlaunchedin2009,inpartinreactiontochangesatDel.icio.us,abeloved
bookmarkingsitestartedbyJoshuaSchacterandsoldtoYahoo,whichslowlyran
thesiteintotheground.ManyofPinboardspoliciescanbereadasCegowskis
attemptstoprotecthimselfandanyoneelsefromhavingpreciouspersonaldata
heldhostagewhenacompanychangeshands.Buttheseprinciplesarealsoan
invitationtothinkabout,andperhapstocreate,awebthatworksverydierently.
Thewebiscelebratinga25thanniversary,butthatcelebratestheinventionofthe
HTTPprotocolbyTimBernersLee.Inpracticalterms,thewebasweknowitisless
than20yearsold.Manyoftheserviceswerelyon,likeTwitter,arelessthan10
yearsold.Yetitsoftenhardtoimaginemakingdeep,structuralchangestotheweb.
Itseasytoassumethataspectsofthewebsarchitectureandbusinessmodelare
inevitable:Wewillinexorablymovetowardsawebthatiscentralized,adsupported
andheavilysurveilled.
PartofthecelebrationoftheWebs25thanniversaryisTheWebWeWant,a
campaigntoopenthedialogabouthowtheInternetisstructuredandgovernedto
voicesfromaroundtheglobe.Ithinkitsatleastasimportanttoconsiderhowwe
wantthewebtomakemoney,asthesedecisionshavepowerfulunintended
consequences.
Onesimplewayforwardistochargeforservicesandprotectusersprivacy,as
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CegowskiisdoingwithPinboard.Whatwoulditcosttosubscribetoanad-free
Facebookandreceiveaveriablepromisethatyourcontentandmetadatawasnt
beingresold,andwouldbedeletedwithinaxedwindow?Googlenowdoesthis
withitsenterpriseandeducationalemailtools,promisingpayingusersthattheir
emailisnowexemptfromthecreepycontent-basedadtargetingthatcharacterizes
itsfreeproduct.WouldGoogleallowuserstomayamodestsubscriptionfeeand
optoutofthisobvious,heavy-handedsurveillance?
***
Userswillpayforservicesthattheylove.Reddit,thelivelyrecommendationand
discussioncommunity,sellsRedditGoldsubscriptionsthatgiveusersspecial
privilegesandtheabilitytoturnoads.(Thoseads,bytheway,arealotless
intrusivethanthoseonmostsocialnetworks.)RedditadvertisesGoldbothby
detailingbenetsofmembershipandsettingdailygoalsforgoldsubscriptions,
tellingreaders,Webelievethemoreredditcanbeuser-supported,thefreerwe
willbetomakeredditthebestitcanbe.Aculturehasdevelopedofgivinga
monthsRedditgoldmembershiptosomeonewhosecommentsorcontentyouve
especiallyappreciated,rewardingboththeindividualandthecommunityasa
whole.ItwouldbeinterestingtoseeifFacebookcouldsupportapremiummodel.I
suspectmanypeopleuseFacebookbecausetheyfeeltheyhaveto,notbecausethey
loveit,astheyloveReddit.
Therearenumerousconsequences,notallintended,notallgood,tousingfeefor
serviceasadefaultmodelontheweb.Manyuserswouldabandonservicesthat
werentworthpayingforwedseeusagenumbersforsitesshrinkaswellas
growinginexorably.Mostsiteswouldhavemuchsmalleruserbases.Thislikely
meanswedhaveahardertimendingourexesonFacebook,butmightmeanwed
seemorecompetition,lesscentralizationandmorecompetitiveinnovation.
Ifwewanttobuildawebthatsreallyglobal,weneedtorethinkonlinepayment
systems.VisaandMastercardmayneverbecomepervasiveinIndiaandsubSaharanAfricaasmobilemoneyalreadyhasastrongmarketshare.Still,systems
likeM-PesasuerthesameproblemsascreditcardsandPayPal:hightransaction
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costs.ThemodelTedNelsondreamedofwithXanadu,wherehyperlinkswould
ensureauthorswerecitedandcompensatedfortheirwork,requireda
micropaymentsystemwithlowtransactioncosts.
WemaybenearingsuchasystemwithBitcoinandothercryptocurrenciesthat
permittransactionswithextremelylowtransactioncosts.(Intheory.Inpractice,
Bitcointransactioncostsarecurrentlystillasignicantfractionofadollar.)Projects
likeStellararefocusedonmainstreamingcryptocurrencyandensuringthese
systemsarentopenonlytothedigerati.IfStellartakeso(abigif)andif
transactioncostsdroplowenough(averybigif),wemightseeanInternetsupported
onmicropaymentsofafractionofacenttocompensatetheoperatorsofservicesor
creatorsofcontent.Thissortofarchitecturemightprovideaviablealternativeto
advertisingfornewbusinessesstartingonline.(ConsiderJeremyRubinsTidbit
project,whichquicklyranintolegaltroubleviewersofawebpagewouldpaya
micropaymentthroughgivingcyclesoftheircomputersCPUtomineBitcoinsasa
wayofpayingthepagesowner.)
Thereisnosinglerightanswertothequestionofhowwepayforthetoolthatlets
usshareknowledge,opinions,ideas,andphotosofcutecats.Whetherweembrace
micropayments,membership,crowdfunding,oranyothermodel,therearebound
tobeunintendedconsequences.
But20yearsintothead-supportedweb,wecanseethatourcurrentmodelisbad,
broken,andcorrosive.Itstimetostartpayingforprivacy,tosupportserviceswe
love,andtoabandonthosethatarefree,butsellustheusersandourattentionas
theproduct.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN is the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the principal research
scientist at MIT's Media Lab. He is the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of

Connection.

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