Something’s Gotta Give: The Perils of Dominant Business Models in Online Environments

The readings this week focused on two different business models: traditional online advertising and the modified, modern patronage model made popular through the platform Patreon. In this post, I focus on the ad readings, whose general consensus seems to be that the current advertising system is broken—people don’t like online ads (based on views and/or clicks), so AdBlock Plus is extorting publishers and content creators like some kind of digital mafia boss, with those who rely on ad revenue helpless to stop it. This makes actually making any money very difficult, especially when we tend to pass on the responsibility of dealing with the current broken advertising model, and then use the excuse of “neutral” platforms, software and extensions to explain why it is not our job to fix them/why they cannot be fixed. Of course, no platform, software, or extension is neutral. At some point in the process, a biased human being is on the other side of the screen making very biased human decisions about how things are designed, and how they operate. If we want to fix the system, we shouldn’t “[…] build systems that let us pass the buck to someone else, in exchange for passing them a few bucks”; we should demand and take responsibility for the things that affect us. Or, at least, that’s Anil Dash’s argument.

I think this is easier said than done.

The problem with a single business model becoming dominant in an online environment, and in fact in any environment, is that no one model is infallible. Being completely reliant on a single revenue stream makes you vulnerable should that stream dry up. Furthermore, when a business model becomes dominant, it limits the incentive for business owners to create or build new models or go looking for other revenue streams—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! This lack of creativity and stagnancy makes the model vulnerable as the market evolves, until everyone is in crisis because, say, traditional online advertising no longer works as effectively (if at all) in a digital environment. This “panic mode” either forces creativity and an evolution of the model, or demands its replacement with something more sustainable—and the cycle continues. This loop can be seen in the evolution of TV and radio advertising: forced to compete with Netflix and rapidly changing social climate, TV advertisers have been forced to become clever in their ads.

With the rise of ad blockers, it looks like we’ll soon be seeing the same shift in online advertising—though if advertising will change, or if business models will shift to remove it from their revenue streams completely still remains to be seen. Either way, something’s gotta give.

To Pay or Not to Pay? Why I’ll Start Supporting Creators

Though I’ve only very recently begun to think about paying for subscriptions (the last two years or so), I can pinpoint the exact moment when my thinking began to shift: I had been complaining to my brother that one of my friends was going to charge me for art I’d asked her to make for a piece of fanfiction I was writing, and had been really upset that she hadn’t offered to do it for free. I had written her a ton of fic in the past, I’d changed my travel plans to visit her in both Germany and Italy during the semester I’d been in Europe, and I’d been shocked that she hadn’t offered to do this for free when I thought we were friends.

My little brother was not sympathetic.

He first asked why I didn’t think my friend should be compensated for her labour, then pushed further by inquiring if I didn’t want to support her in her creative endeavours. I was gobsmacked.

I had honestly never thought of paying my friends for their creative labour before. Mostly, this can be attributed to how I grew up: I was always taught that you don’t charge your friends (or you at least give them a serious discount) because you love them, and that’s just how you behave towards the people you love. Other parts can probably be explained away by the general undervaluing of the arts: even in last year’s federal budget, the Canadian government failed to recognize the precarious position of 650,000 cultural workers, and “some forms of museum funding still remain at levels lower than they were in 1972”. That’s not even considering the fact that the arts are severely underfunded in Canadian grade schools[1]… which is where you’d generally learn to appreciate and value various kinds of art.

Needless to say, my opinions shifted. Later, when I began to consider the possibility of publishing written fanworks in printed anthologies, I became aware that my attitudes towards monetizing print and visual art were also very different. Namely: I believed visual art to be inherently more expensive. I was willing to pay $20 to commission a piece of fanart, but I couldn’t conceive of compensating a fic writer for the same service. For a printed anthology, fine… but where I was willing to pay for art whether I received a print or it stayed on my screen, an online fic was something I very firmly believed was and should stay free of charge.

I think this might have had to do with a subconscious viewing of fanfiction as lesser due to its primarily female reader and authorship—but I think it also had to do with the way Western society values the visual over text. When was the last time you went into a place that displayed and showcased books? Museums don’t tend to have selections of books on display unless they’re very old, and libraries are not viewed as having nearly as much cultural capital as museums. Furthermore, if you want to have access to a special collection, you need permission to do so. Part of the reason as to why this is may also be is due to the fact that text is so very ubiquitous, both in print and online—we’re so used to seeing it that we have certain expectations when we do. I think that a lot of these expectations have to do with form: I expect to pay for a newspaper, so I’ll subscribe to a newspaper. I expect to pay for a print book, so I pay for a print book. But the idea of monetizing long-form content unaffiliated with traditional news sources, or monetizing the creation of online fanfiction, are fairly recent and had been indiscriminately free when I started using the web.

I have never paid for a subscription to any online magazine or blog. I tend to find quick fixes through switching browsers, or moving on to view free content. This is, I think, for all the reasons listed above, as well as the fact that my historical lack of disposable income has meant I’ve had to be very selective in where I allocate what few dollars I have to give. That doesn’t mean I’ll never pay, but right now, my priorities revolve around rent and groceries and allowing myself the odd night out when I spend all day reading on a screen. After I graduate and get a job? Chances are, my priorities will have shifted towards wanting to read long-form articles—ones I pay for, this time, in order to properly compensate authors for their labour.

 

[1] If the linked article doesn’t convince you due to its 2013 timestamp, take a look at this one, written specifically about Ontario and it’s practices (2018).

The Idealistic Room: Strengths and Weaknesses of Framing the Web as a Library

I think a lot of what the readings this week taught me is that there’s nostalgia for what the web used to be, owing to both its past infrastructure and its potential: What was the web going to be? What would it do? What would we make it? The web was originally a tool for the open and free (non-monetized) communication and dissemination of ideas[1], and the authors of our readings all seem to be yearning for a time when things like the Stream and rampant commercialization weren’t present in online spaces. That’s not to say all is lost, however: in his article “The Good Room”, Frank Chimero asks us to reconsider all the old, exciting questions—What was the web going to be? What would it do? What would we make it?—in a different context:

“In the last decade, technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live. If we’re setting out to change the character of technology in our lives, we’d be wise to learn from the character of places.”

Chimero’s metaphor for framing this conversation is to think of the web as a library. This is similar to Adam Gopnik’s conception of it, though instead of focusing on the beauty and openness of such a location, Gopnik describes sleeping among the stacks in a way that can be overwhelming. I really enjoy the idea of the web as a library, though I tend to imagine it as an infinitely ever-expanding room with shelves so high they can barely be seen from the ground, where knowledge and information are ripe for the taking. I like the idea of spending a large part of my life in this space, reading and interacting with people in the stacks, until I get sleepy. And so I agree with Gopnik, but Chimero’s point also resonates with me: wouldn’t it be nice if the web was designed like a library? I should note that I don’t mean all libraries, here—the one in my hometown is dark and dismal at best. I never did any work there. But I like the idea of a beautiful library; a space that serves as an open area for community engagement and is designed with the goal of making us feel inspired and relaxed. I also really like this metaphor because would allow those of us whose libraries and community centres are dark and claustrophobic the opportunity to inhabit beautiful, inspirational spaces and create/learn within them.

Still, I think we should exercise caution when framing our idea of the web this way. The web as a library is a gorgeous image, but libraries are bounded in a way that the web is not. Furthermore, the library as a space is often romanticized (whether or not the web suffers the same fate probably depends on who you talk to); it is a carefully curated collection housed in a subsidized institution—and if the idea is to create a space free of outside, imposed curation, this particular establishment might not be the best metaphor.

Even the idea of emulating how one feels in a library falls through when you think of current technology’s physical limitations. The library is a beautiful place you visit in order to read/learn/work, and the space is designed in a way that encourages groundedness and being present only insofar as it allows you to become engrossed in your work. Say I go to the VPL to read up on history, or science, or to start a fantasy novel… the ultimate goal is not to remain rooted in the space, but to become captivated by the material in front of me, and the space of the beautiful library eases that transition. Unfortunately, this translates poorly when using the web: my eastside apartment will never feel like a grand library reading room no matter how beautiful the website on my screen is—the feelings of airiness and openness can’t transfer. The harsh light of our devices is something to consider here, as well: our bodies become fatigued while looking at a screen in a way that they do not sitting in a reading room.

I think it would be fantastic to make the web a library; the idea of everyone inhabiting an open space designed to encourage creativity and community for all is something I wholeheartedly support. But I also think we should know the limits of this particular way of framing what we want the web to be.

 

[1] Note that the free exchange of ideas was still very much subject to who had the financial means and overall ability to use the technology available. Unsurprisingly, most of these individuals were white men.

The Goldilocks Problem: Thoughts on Reductive Reasoning and New Tech

In his article, “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us”, Adam Gopnik presents each position—Never-Betters (optimists), Better-Nevers (pessimists), and Ever-Wasers (neutral; humanity’s love-hate relationship with technology has never changed)—as having its strengths and weaknesses: technology can and has been used to enslave just as easily as it has been used to empower; cognitive exasperation runs just as rampant as cognitive expansion; the Internet and Web inhibit meaningful social interaction while it simultaneously acting as a hub of interconnectivity; and, finally, just as historical attitudes towards technologies tend to repeat themselves in a never-ending cycle, contemporary technology’s particular brand of omnipresence is something humanity has never encountered before. Frank Chimero, in his essay “The Good Room”, seems to agree with the latter point wholeheartedly, when he wrote: “technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live”. This is something I agree with as well.

I went into “The Information” thinking my own opinions regarding technology were so complex it would be impossible to fit them into a one tidy category, and upon finishing all the readings from last week, that position has remained the same—what has changed, however, is my ability to formulate and my thoughts and opinions more clearly. As it turns out, I am a mix of all three positions Gopnik lays out, and I feel that North American society as a whole[1] also fits into this new, complex category: where new technology is as exciting as it is scary, and something we both have and have not encountered throughout history.

When pushed, people tend to have slightly more nuanced opinions of things than they let on. I have observed this both in my personal life, and in my interactions with others. For example: at first glance, I tend to present myself as a Never-Better: I use modern technology for everything, I’m rarely seen without my computer and phone, and I truly enjoy all the benefits of modern tech awards me, and so defend them vehemently. That being said… technology also scares me half to death. The idea that companies harvest my information for commercial use is uncomfortable, I have a fear of getting doxed, and the commercialized Web (with all its negative implications) deeply upsets me. At the same time, I’m aware that most of my immediate resistance to new tech is a resistance to change, which is something humans tend not to enjoy—but I also know that humanity has never had such an intimate relationship with technology as we currently do, which makes me wary to write off any and all emotional and critical responses as part of an ancient cycle of human behaviour.

In short, the way I feel about new technology is a complicated mess. These feelings mirror those of my roommate, my brother, my parents, and I’m willing to bet, just about every other North American who has been exposed to technology within the past decade. The more complex technology becomes, and the more parts of our lives it irrevocably changes—the more it has us living inside the library, instead of visiting at our leisure—the more complicated and complex our relationship with it becomes. Furthermore, fitting such a large part of contemporary life into simplistic black and white areas is reductive and potentially dangerous. If the Stream has taught me anything, it’s that we should be wary of easy answers and neat, boxed-up solutions… they tend to radicalize in a way that makes it easy to suspend critical engagement despite our nuanced thoughts and feelings.

[1] It’s worth thinking about how we are define “society as a whole”: globally? The West? Canada? Vancouver? My experience of technology might be very different than someone who lives in China, or Georgia, so I’m using North America, based on my own experiences.