Why The Internet Is About To Change For The Worse

We're quickly moving toward a walled-off version of the web that works like streaming services do now.
Why The Internet Is About To Change For The Worse

Crucial internet resource Snopes.com is raising money on GoFundMe to keep going. Lots of you already know that we started taking reader contributions last month, and probably half of your favorite YouTubers, podcasters, and Twitch streamers do the same. "What happened to the old internet," you ask, "when people didn't always have their hand in my pocket?"

Great question! While others worry about net neutrality (and that is a big deal!), I say there is a much more imminent threat to the "free" (as in no-cost) internet: The slow collapse of web advertising. This is actually happening much faster than any hypothetical nightmare scenario net neutrality supporters warned us of ... and there's nobody we can lobby to fix it.

I'm very worried that we're quickly moving toward a walled-off version of the web that works like streaming services do now. To see all of the shows, you have to get Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube Red, HBO GO, Vudu, iTunes, and a dozen other services which combined cost more than your rent. Is that the future, all of the best sites bundled into paid subscriptions and audiences locked into ever more tightly sealed bubbles (since no one person can afford all of the services)? How did we get here?

I'll try to answer your questions without whipping out a bunch of pie charts, as the reasons are complex, and in many cases as boring as watching mushrooms fuck. But trust me, if you are reading these words, this affects you.

"Why Are My Favorite Sites Cutting Content, Or Vanishing Altogether?"

Let me start from the beginning.

Thousands of years ago, a goat herder approached a villager and said, "I will give you one of my goats if you will touch my penis." This was the invention of trading goods for services. Later, it became impractical to carry an entire herd of goats when heading out for a night on the town, so instead villagers would just carry a few slips of paper that said "Good for one goat." Thus, currency was born. Not long after, that same man announced to the village that he had written a poem about the time a stranger touched his penis, and would read it aloud for one hundred goat dollars. The man was immediately arrested and burned at the stake. Thus was born the debate over what, exactly, created content is worth.

That brings us to last year, when a shitstorm hit the web publishing industry. Sites that lost money and/or made cuts included HuffPo, The Guardian, Fusion, Mashable, Salon, Medium, and lots of others. Just this summer, we saw the same happen at The New York Times, MTV News, and Fox Sports. Then Vice Sports shut down completely.

What's the deal? First, there's always been a problem with trying to make money by giving away internet content for free. When the dot-com bubble popped in the early 2000s, I watched ad rates on my old site drop 97 percent over the course of just a couple of years. But those are old complaints. What is new is that A) most of you are reading this on a phone (less screen space for ads, so publishers get paid less) and B) ad-blocking has hit a tipping point (more than half of users now do it).

So publishers automatically make less on the articles they had to spend money to create. For example, Mother Jones published this important piece on private prisons which took half a year and several staff members to put together. It cost them $350,000 to produce. It became a huge viral hit, and as a result, the banner ads earned them ... $5,000.

The article was great, readers loved it, and they still lost money. If they put the article behind a paywall, it doesn't accomplish its goal, because it loses its ability to go viral and raise awareness of the issue. That's why they solicit financial contributions from readers. Now, we here at Cracked have never spent that much on an article, aside from the $400K Soren charged to write this piece about the seven best kinds of monkey, but it's still the same problem. Research, writing, and editing take time, and staff members need money in order to buy food. So we started a contribution page of our own.

"Why In The Hell Do Sites Keep Demanding I Download Their App Or Sign Up For Their Newsletter?"

Back when people used to do their internet browsing on bulky computers with huge CRT monitors that took up half of a desk, they would bookmark their favorite sites in their browser and create a reading list that way. Maybe they'd use an RSS feed, or rely on portal sites like Metafilter or Stumbleupon. Whatever the case, as a writer or publisher, you had a pretty reliable way to find your people.

When browsing on a phone, though, it's kind of a pain in the ass to bookmark things, so most people either get apps for each of their favorite sites or (more likely) get all of their content through Facebook. It just makes sense -- everyone has the Facebook app, and every publisher is on Facebook, so why not simply "like" the pages of your favorite sites and then get a steady feed of everything in one place?

Soon, all traffic flowed through Mark Zuckerberg's kingdom, and publishers became so dependent on it that when Facebook tweaked its system so that users were only fed certain updates (purely of Facebook's choosing) thousands of sites got nailed. Upworthy lost 80 percent of its traffic, for instance. On average, sites lost almost half of the traffic they were getting from Facebook, and for most, that was the bulk of their business. Here's another article that digs into the details -- none of this is news to anyone in the industry. Who could have seen this coming, aside from everyone who saw The Social Network?

Like the issues I outlined in the previous entry, this has nothing to do with quality or how hard various publishers work to make good stuff. In fact, you get punished for spending to make sure a piece is perfect; it's more profitable to publish junk or rip content from other sites. So a site nagging you to start browsing its content via its app or newsletter makes it so the creators aren't at Zuck's mercy ... at least until he gets elected president.

"Why Do So Many Ads Act Like Fucking Viruses?"

We've all been there. You're trying to read an article on your phone, and suddenly you get redirected to the app store. Or you're trying to read on your PC, and a banner ad starts yelling at you to call the virus police at their 800 number. How the hell can publishers allow this?

I actually wrote about this extensively in the Thanksgiving reader mail response last year. I don't want to rehash the answer here, but what it boils down to is that publishers have shockingly little control over ad networks. The system is kind of a mess, with lots of moving parts, and it's easy for malicious ads to slip in, even if you're relentless about trying to stop them. (There's another article about it here, if you're curious. Every ad-supported site has had to deal with this.)

But really, obnoxious ads are just a symptom, as are the constant frustrating battles some creators have to fight to get paid. The thing with Snopes I mentioned in the intro stems from a fight with their ad network / business partners over missing revenue payments. It's no better over on the YouTube side, where hosts routinely see ad money vanish for unclear reasons. The heart of the issue is that even 20-plus years in, the internet economy still feels like the goats-for-poetry days of yore. Ask literally anyone who has tried to make a living from it. Hell, ask Google, which was shocked to see its own ads running on videos put out by Nazis and jihadists. This is what happens when you try to automate everything, goddammit! Somebody needs to start paying attention!

The point is, nobody is happy with the current system -- not the readers, not the publishers, not the advertisers. It will change, because it has to. I don't know if the future is letting willing fans just straight up contribute money to support the rest, but we're trying that, among other things. I can say that I much prefer that over a future in which every site with a professional staff is behind a paywall, and soon they start joining forces to create networks -- suddenly you're paying $19.95 a month for the Tech News Bundle. That's the exact "cable model" the net neutrality folks were warning us about!

I'm not an expert, but that sounds super plausible to me.

"So Who Is To Blame For All Of This? Who Stole All Of The Money?"

Not every problem has a villain. The web is a miraculous invention that has set information free. We're awash in all of the collective knowledge and artwork of our glorious species. But food does not grow for free, and housing does not build itself, so it's a puzzle to figure out how to reward those who work hard to keep knowledge and art flowing but themselves still need meals and roofs.

I mean, if you'd come to me in 1998 and told me that someday everyone would have a gadget in their pocket they could use to read my articles, I'd have said that sounded incredible. Once you clarified that they could also use that gadget to read other people's articles, I'd have still been happy. So now we're here in the future, and it's great, but there are complications we have to figure out. In the Star Trek universe, they probably had to figure out how to compensate the cook who came up with the recipes the replicators used. There was probably a point where that created a genuine crisis for some people.

And make no mistake, this will be a crisis for some. Starting next year, Chrome will start blocking ads by default, and all other browsers will soon follow. Sure, they say they will only block the "intrusive" ads, but those are the only ones that advertisers will pay for; if the ad isn't "intruding," then it's being ignored, and if it's being ignored, the advertiser is wasting their money.

That is, as far as I can tell, either the end of the free internet or at least the beginning of the end. It has to happen. Audiences have made it clear that they don't want to pay for web content in attention (that is, giving some of their attention to advertisements as a form of payment), and so we have to decide how we want to do this instead.

For more from David Wong, check out 6 New Kinds of Anxiety the Internet Gave Us and Cracked's Secret (Communist) Plan To Keep The Site Free.

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