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May 5, 2017

We Must Replace the Internet’s Ad-Based Business Model Before the Ads Drive Us All Insane

Image courtesy of ( David Castillo Dominici) / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of ( David Castillo Dominici) / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

OMG – you won’t believe the one CRAZY trick that everyone hates.

Actually, you probably will: rewarding online content producers through a business model that’s based on ad revenue.

Website visitors hate it, because ads muddle and interfere with their online experience – ads pop up, videos auto-play – and insult our intelligence with outrageous headlines (so dumb that sometimes we just have to click).

Content producers hate it, because they face perverse monetary incentives pressuring them to adopt tantalizing clickbait headlines, while failing to reward content more congruent with their true creative impulses and tastes.

Those who simply want to absorb honest information online hate it because, as a recent New York Times article covering the rise of false partisan news across the political spectrum put it, “in the bizarre-world of online advertising, the fake can be more profitable than the real.”

Privacy experts hate it because the entire digital advertising world hinges on systems that track online behavior to an intrusive degree, profiling every user out there to better target them with ads. To sum it up, the ad-based business model that allows users to consume online content for “free” actually costs us a lot more than you might realize.

Now even Ev Williams is questioning this model (or: what Ev says about ad-driven media may shock you). Ev has a storied history of success with free-to-use ad-supported content platforms – he’s credited with inventing the term “blogger” and made his fortune selling Blogger.com to Google, founded Odeo (which after a few twists and turns arrived at a name you will recognize: Twitter), then created Medium, the publishing platform company where he currently serves as CEO. In a recent post on Medium, he acknowledges the fact that ad-driven media relies on a flawed business model. As a revenue model, it fails to scale. At the same time, it fails to incentivize the production of quality content, properly reward content producers, or truly satisfy audiences. Ev promises to define a new model where content producers will be rewarded based on the value they create, rather than the quantity of cheap ad clicks they generate, and we wish his team luck.

In the meantime, we, the people of the Internet, have the power to take it back by our own means. Web users who simply desire to share their thoughts, art, or silly pictures online don’t have to hand their content over to companies with flawed business models, who will surround our content with ads and use it to further profile viewers for advertising purposes.

It’s possible to take ownership of your own content for just a few dollars a year, with a domain name that is yours and via simple hosting (using managed WordPress on hosting platform is one such option). Along with other strong self-hosted options, WordPress offers capabilities for building a social media presence and making use of the huge distribution channels of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and others while maintaining control of your content at one centralized point of publication. There’s a wide selection of software in development that uses open standards and the concept of “online federation” to allow information to break out of silos and flow across domains. NextCloud is another service that’s useful for keeping and sharing your documents, images, and videos without placing them in the wrong hands. MediaGoblin offers a similar service for multimedia content. Matrix enables chat across different domains – for example, it could lead to a future where someone using WhatsApp can talk to someone using Telegram or Slack, without having to create multiple accounts. Each of these services is available and simple to implement for users that control their own hosting, and with it the ability to self-determine their online presence.

My hope is that online content producers will take greater control over what is theirs, to the degree that we witness a fundamental shift away from the ad-based model. I want the last clickbait article I ever read to be titled: “The Internet found a smarter way to deliver and reward quality content. You won’t believe what happened next.”


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Stefano Maffulli is director of community at DreamHost, a global Web hosting, domain registrar, and cloud services provider. Previously, Stefano served as the community manager for the OpenStack Foundation.

One Response to “We Must Replace the Internet’s Ad-Based Business Model Before the Ads Drive Us All Insane

    Although I agree that adverting is quite controlling and forcing the hand of content creators, I just don’t Content Creators going anywhere. It’s the nature of the beast. Granted as you stated you can always put your very own site together and have total control. But YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms are just too big to ignore and not use to it’s fullest. Those platforms have such a HUGE audience that you are forced to use them despite the drawbacks of the Annoying Advertising mechanism.

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