Once upon a time in the 20th century, a new technology was born: the hope and dream of utopian educators everywhere. This new medium was more democratic than anything previously imaginable.
Now we could reach everyone and educate every single person in a way that changed their lives. The entire populace was about to become a whole lot smarter because this new medium was going to enable it.
The technology, of course, is none other than the television.
It’s hard to believe today that television was once the domain of hopeful dreamers. It showed a potential for education and the uplifting of the species that had never been seen before. It was believed that this new medium would change the world and uplift the human species. This, as we know, did not pan out.
There are many ways to approach that topic. But the most potent factor was the business model.
The day the TV died
In her research on shame, Brene Brown discovered a powerful distinction between
showing up and belonging.
Fitting in: assessing a situation and becoming who we need to be to be accepted.
Belonging: doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.
To the external observer, the difference might be imperceptible. But in the psyche of the individual we are talking about chalk and cheese. If you come away from a situation having failed to fit in, the reaction
will be shame, i.e. “there’s something wrong with me”. Whereas if you fail, but your goal was belonging, then you won’t feel great (obviously), you might feel sad or you might feel drained, but you will not feel shame.
The point being that when you prioritise the wrong metrics, you get very different outcomes. It’s an illustration of how something subtle like intention can warp the landscape of an interaction so that the entire situation is flipped on its head.
This is what happened with TV. The utopian educational medium got mixed up with advertising and instead of utopia we got “Catfish: the TV Show”.
TV needed to make money to function as an industry and, as it turned out, the newly born field of advertising was the best way to make it. And once this decision was made, the rest was inevitable.
How does advertising work? You want as many people to see your ads as possible. Therefore the stations with the most viewers at a certain time can charge the highest premium for ads. Later on you get more nefarious meddling when advertisers try to control the content of a medium so that consumers will feel
most well-disposed towards their product.(for example despite record viewing numbers you might be less buy into an ad for a package holiday after watching an episode of Planet Earth).
But even before this intentional manipulation, the demands of the advertising model already tilt the room. If you want to make the most money, you need to show the ad to the most people. TV all of a sudden has become a popularity contest. The emphasis is on quantity, not on quality. The metric is viewer numbers at any one time; nothing else. How many people will see the ad? Everything revolves around that.
And now look at TV. It’s commonly perceived as a cesspit. No medium receives more condescension — “
the boob tube” and “the idiot box” being the gentler phrasings of its present status in society.
But it wasn’t always this way.
From Planet Earth to Love Island
There was a time when TV held the hopes and dreams of educating humanity. But then it became dominated by the demands of making money and of capturing people’s attention so that advertising dollars could be made.
The last bastion of such dreams are stations like America’s PBS. Last time I checked, the History channel had become a gutter filled with aliens, and the Discovery channel had become one never-ending survival show. In the race for viewers, MTV has regressed from a music channel to a haven for such quality reality TV shows as Catfish, Teen Moms and Celebrity Bumps.
As far as I can tell, you have PBS, and maybe National Geographic, and the rest of the channels are one Kardashian away from rock bottom. I’m being a little hyperbolic, of course, because there’s always some amazing and beautiful TV shows that raise the bar a little.
There are still signs that the utopian dream of TV was not ill-founded. The top 2 highest rated TV shows of all time on IMDB are David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 1 and 2. Today this is only salt in the wound — a reminder of what could have been, of the utopian dream of education that never materialised.
Instead, we are left with a landscape that is more Keeping Up with The Kardashians and Love Island than it is Planet Earth.
We need to talk about the internet
Today we find ourselves at a pivotal moment in the history of TV’s successor. It is a moment of cognitive dissonance where both the utopian and dystopian visions coexist.
We all remember the hopeful, naïve dreams of the internet — the quirky, young internet that seemed so innocent. The soundtrack to this utopian vision is the dial-up connection that we once needed to connect to this great hive mind of potential.
On the other hand, we are also cognizant of
The Social Dilemma and of the Frankenstein monster that was born out of this naïve vision. The recent leaks out of Facebook come as a surprise to few of us.
And yet, it takes time for the high to fade, and so both perspectives of the internet continue to coexist: the utopian and dystopian internets, the great educator and the great leveller. Ah but how fast the utopian dream is fading.
It is not too soon to conduct the post-mortem on
Web 2.0 and how the internet became the new TV. The answer, of course, is simple: the internet was devoured by the same monster that ate the TV utopia — the business model. The day the internet died
The big tech companies beginning with Google, and followed by the social media companies, opted for an advertising business model, and that was the day the internet died.
In the case of Google, this had fewer ill effects. After all, Google’s main job is to get you to where you want to go. It can smuggle those ads in at the top, and they are about as damaging as a billboard. It’s not ideal, but it’s a free service, and they have to make money, so okay, we’ll allow it.
The real trouble came when this business model was applied to social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. With that, a chain of unfortunate events was set in motion.
In order to make money, the user of the social media platform must be shown ads. And unlike Google, these sites can prioritise for time-on-site. And so, in the interest of the business model, the entire workings of the social media algorithms is to prioritise one metric: time-on-site.
The longer you remain on Facebook or YouTube or Instagram, the more ads they can show you. More ads = more money. Whichever one succeeds at trapping you best makes the most money. And so we are back to the popularity contest we saw in the land of TV.
But the internet is to TV as the nuclear bomb is to a cannonball. Because the internet can be tailored to the individual user. You can’t do that with TV. With TV, you ended up with the lowest common denominator entertainment. It sucked, but the dystopia was one of the boob tube rather than the Mob Machine that is the internet.
And the worst part is: there’s no turning back.
No Way Back
Remember the days when Google’s motto was Don’t Be Evil and when Facebook was famous for connecting old flames and finding old friends. They were simpler times.
Now they are more famous for influencing elections, propagating misinformation and disinformation and as Petri dishes for developing more and more exotic conspiracy theories.
And we can’t go back. Why, you might ask? Because of the business model silly.
Because social media companies — like all publicly traded stocks — are also judged by poor metrics. The metric, in this case, isn’t time-on-site but profits and loss. If the profits are down, the markets are sad, and the share price drops, thus causing shareholders to sell.
And so the profits always need to increase; the books always need to be getting happier and happier. Otherwise, bad things happen. If Facebook tried to become ethical, its profits would drop, and its share price would plummet, and the company’s growth would waver.
This would also open the potential for a well-funded competitor to try and swoop in steal the market away and advertise like hell to them in the most unethical, addictive way possible.
With the combination of this shareholder pressure with these race to the bottom dynamics, the diagnosis is clear: we are in trouble.
Faced with a dilemma between ethics and growth, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Google changed its motto from Don’t Be Evil and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Long Road To Freedom
Corrupted by lucre. It’s a theme as old as the world. With the advertising model in place, the internet quickly became a number of major TV channels wrestling for your attention against all the others. The priority was time-on-site and they sought to evoke all the absorption that the previous medium did. And here we are today.
Just as with TV, the utopian dream finds its pockets of salvation. Instead of PBS and Planet Earth, we have our Wikipedia. The rest of the internet heads the way of TV — hurtling at gigabit speeds towards the lowest common denominator.
Perhaps TV will become like radio: a quaint, more respectable medium that, because of its obsolescence, appeals to a different slice of the psyche.
For now, though, we are looking straight into the death of the internet, and it’s worth asking why. The optimistic answer is that the problem is the advertising business model; the more cynical answer is that it’s capitalism itself.
At the very least, we have seen two utopian media destroyed by this business model. But, of course, it’s not just the advertising business model. Before TV, we saw another utopian democratic medium destroyed by its business model: the newspaper.
When it became possible to quickly print newspapers in the early 20th century, there was an epidemic of fake news, and papers scrambled to sell as many newspapers as possible with the addendums being flogged on the street to the cries of “Extra! Extra!”.
Eventually, this business model was overcome by a jaded public and the emergence of trustworthy outlets. Or, perhaps the emergence of radio left newspapers with the relaxed role as the outdated outlet that gained a greater edge of respectability. All points worthy of further investigation.
The bottom line (and we all know it’s all about the bottom line): the dream of the internet is dead. And we could invent a whole new utopian medium and y’know what would happen: the exact same thing.
Humans are the minds of gods strapped to the bodies of chimps. Having 4 billion years of accrued instinct on its side, the chimp will always have more powerful drives than the newly born mind of the god. As we explored in our recent article on the
moth and the fire, instinct is easily hijacked. That’s what we are seeing happening with social media and the internet. We are being hijacked. Because no adult intends to spend as much time on these sites as they do — they are captured.
And as long as we run on business models whose priority is capture and raw quantity rather than quality, we are f*cked.