This article in the MIT Technology Review largely comes to the same conclusions as my comment in another Thought Shrapnel post today. If the web is broken because of tracking, and that tracking comes from advertising funding the web, then we need a better way of funding the web.
Big Tech wants that to be user subscriptions. But there’s a federated network of instances out there called the Fediverse which will, inevitably, be around longer than any particular social network. So you might as well get onboard now.
The existential problem is that both the best and worst parts of the internet exist for the same set of reasons, were developed with many of the same resources, and often grew in conjunction with each other. So where did the sickness come from? How did the internet get so … nasty? To untangle this, we have to go back to the early days of online discourse.
In 1999, the ad company DoubleClick was planning to combine personal data with tracking cookies to follow people around the web so it could target its ads more effectively. This changed what people thought was possible. It turned the cookie, originally a neutral technology for storing Web data locally on users’ computers, into something used for tracking individuals across the internet for the purpose of monetizing them.
Our modern internet is built on highly targeted advertising using our personal data. That is what makes it free. The social platforms, most digital publishers, Google—all run on ad revenue. For the social platforms and Google, their business model is to deliver highly sophisticated targeted ads. (And business is good: in addition to Google’s billions, Meta took in $116 billion in revenue for 2022. Nearly half the people living on planet Earth are monthly active users of a Meta-owned product.) Meanwhile, the sheer extent of the personal data we happily hand over to them in exchange for using their services for free would make people from the year 2000 drop their flip phones in shock.
When we think of what’s most obviously broken about the internet—harassment and abuse; its role in the rise of political extremism, polarization, and the spread of misinformation; the harmful effects of Instagram on the mental health of teenage girls—the connection to advertising may not seem immediate. And in fact, advertising can sometimes have a mitigating effect: Coca-Cola doesn’t want to run ads next to Nazis, so platforms develop mechanisms to keep them away.
But online advertising demands attention above all else, and it has ultimately enabled and nurtured all the worst of the worst kinds of stuff. Social platforms were incentivized to grow their user base and attract as many eyeballs as possible for as long as possible to serve ever more ads. Or, more accurately, to serve ever more you to advertisers. To accomplish this, the platforms have designed algorithms to keep us scrolling and clicking, the result of which has played into some of humanity’s worst inclinations.