A fairer Internet

Fighting for a fairer internet

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the internet and more importantly the business model of the internet. It is becoming more apparent that the current business model of the internet is broken. A handful of adverting companies now control all advertising revenues online & this has led to companies like Google & Facebook monopolizing both the revenue streams and the access to content.

Google & Facebook are now seen as the major sources of online traffic. Google monopolises search, while Facebook monopolises information aggregation and links. Google’s business model is one of algorithms and control of search, with a natural bias towards paid links through their AdWords advertising programme. Over at Facebook we have a similar issue with their latest algorithms and the promotion of paid content & burying of non-paid content.

Now, this is where it becomes a problem. These two companies aren’t in control of the internet as such, but they have become the defacto portals, the first port of call for anyone searching for information. They have become the default access points for information and produce a funneling effect. This means that information isn’t shared in a fair or democratic way, it all depends on how deep your pockets are & how much you are willing to spend on advertising.

Then we arrive at the situation we are in right now in 2017. Elections & referenda have been won & fingers are pointing at Facebook & online targeted advertising. The proliferation of fake news spread via Facebook, and the political parties both home & abroad who are paying to influence electorates and buy influence are also in the spotlight.

It’s the political which has brought this to the attention of the general public, but the same thing is happening on the broader internet. Small companies are unable to compete fairly online with large companies, uber is under the spotlight for undercutting on price and legal breaches, amazon is changing high streets the world over. A few massive companies are having a profound effect on our societies and most of us turn a blind eye for convenience or low prices.

I’ve owned a small business for 10 years selling online & every year it gets harder to sell & more expensive to advertise. Until 2012 we had no paid advertising and all of our traffic came from organic searches spread across Google, Yahoo, MSN and various other search providers. Today, we spend around 25% of our monthly turnover on advertising with Google and still barely make enough money to pay us a wage. AdWords keeps getting more expensive & conversion ratios keep getting worse. But we have no choice as Google essentially spams their search results with paid adverts before a user even finds the organic hits. Google have cannibalized their competitors and 97% of all search traffic comes from them to our site.

We are approaching a point in time where a few mega companies are controlling not the information online, but the access to it. You may have an amazing blog or website, but if people can’t find it, you can never establish your readership & expose readers to new content. Yet those who can afford it can buy clicks & in turn influence.

The problem is not limited to buying clicks. It’s getting harder to make any money from your own content. The injustice is that the content that google make money off with their AdSense programme, and the revenue Facebook makes, comes largely from user-generated content. We write the blog posts, we create the Instagram’s, the Facebook posts (well I no longer use the platform, but millions do) and so on. We spend time creating content and sharing it. Meanwhile Facebook inject adverts into streams of posts, or amongst legitimate Instagram’s & pay you nothing. AdSense allows publishers to show adverts, but often they aren’t relevant to the content of the website & they pay very little money.

The balance of power has shifted from the content to the platforms. Without our websites and blogs, our news sites and our photography, google wouldn’t have a search or advertising business. Without our photographs and writing, Facebook & instagram wouldn’t exist & certainly wouldn’t be profitable. Yet they make all of the money and claim it’s in return for giving you access to the platforms. The data they mine off you is valuable enough, but then they advertise to you relentlessly.

Google’s dominance of advertising online has led a lot of really good websites to haemorrhage money while still trying to produce content. Advertising revenues for content creators are hard to make a living from, yet we create all of the value with our words, our videos and our pictures.

The need to try to make the internet pay for writers & creators has led us down a dark path. News websites & creators now refer to their work as ‘content’. It has been cheapened to a quantity over quality model, and current world events highlight this perfectly.

Fake news makes its authors money, but lacks all credibility and is usually complete fabrication. These elaborate stories garner clicks & create profit. The more outrageous, the more likely it will be shared on social media and the more it makes. The injustice being this rubbish content is normally really popular & profitable while exceptionally well researched & written content remains hidden.

Visit YouTube and checkout the video titles. Click bait is king, the content is falling by the wayside. YouTube personalities will even publish videos saying they have nothing to make a video about, or asking for video ideas. Seriously?

Blog posts with catchy titles and no substance (cue the comments section on this post), Instagram’ers advertising the latest slimming tea or watches, the content is created for the sole purpose of making ad revenue clicks, not for the value in the content itself. An Instagram of a watch is no different from an advert of a watch, it’s just stealth advertising, not a valuable contribution to your body of work.

Hopefully, one day soon, we can return to an internet which isn’t governed by these advertising behemoths. I’m working on a way to help us get there & will share more about that soon. You are probably wondering what you can do to help?

From a search point of view, why not try a different search engine? There are loads to choose from and you might just enjoy being exposed to new content. If you must use google, try to avoid the paid advertising and aim for the organic hits. This should help promote the production of great content over spammy content.

If you must use Facebook, make sure you use the share button sparingly. Concentrate on the valuable content created by your friends & family, don’t contribute to it being a massive billboard & news farm.

With regards your favourite websites, why not support them by sharing their stories. Pass on your favourite blogs or websites to friends or family & help out your favourite creators. If you see a relevant advert on these websites, check them out. It might pay them enough to grab a coffee and to write their next awesome article. Some blogs & websites will even allow you to chip in a few quid to help pay their bills. If you value the work, do consider doing so.

Try to ignore the live news feeds and un-researched news articles which come out constantly. Look for well written articles, long reads and proper investigative journalism. A lot of the non-paywall news websites have become content farms, desperate for clicks. This can make them a little like Alice down the rabbit hole. They can steal hours if you aren’t careful (sidebar of shame springs to mind). I’ve even taken to paying for my news from The Guardian & The Times. Good content deserves funding, and sometimes exposure to adverts is costlier than ethically funding your favourite writers.

If you run a website, try to keep control of your content. Why post pictures to instagram when you can post them on your website, why write epic posts on Facebook when you could self publish them. Build something for yourself & stop funding the platforms. The internet needs more self hosted work & less ‘platform content’.

I could write for hours about these topics. The commodification of the internet and our content is a massive bugbear. We, the creators, the writers, the photographers and poets, we create the wealth on the internet. Without our words, our videos, our songs, our art the internet is a connection of computers, nothing more. We all need to realise that we are the value creators & the mega monopolies are the parasites. They sell our work and don’t pass along the profits.

Keep creating & keep fighting for a fairer internet.

John Large

My name is John Large. I am a Web Developer, E-commerce site owner & all round geek. My areas of interest include hardware hacking, digital privacy & security, social media & computer hardware. I’m also a minimalist in the making, interested in the Tiny House movement & the experience economy along with a strong interest in sustainability & renewable energy. When I’m not tapping on a keyboard or swiping a smart phone I can be found sampling great coffee, travelling the world with my wife Vicki (who writes over at Let’s Talk Beauty) & generally trying to live my life as unconventionally as possible.

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