The Internet's Original Sin

What I wanted to do was to build a tool that allowed everyone to have the opportunity to express themselves and be heard from anywhere from a few friends to the entire globe. In 1995, there weren’t a lot of ways to offer people free webpage hosting and make money. Charging users for the service would have blocked most of our potential customers—most of the world still doesn’t have a credit card today, and fewer did in 1995. E-payment systems like PayPal didn’t come online until 1999. But because Tripod’s services were free and ad supported, users around the world found us and began posting webpages they could not host elsewhere.

In 1996, we noticed that the majority of our users were coming from four countries: the United States, Canada, the U.K., and Malaysia. Since none of our content was in Bahasa Malay and since we’d never done any outreach to Malaysian users, this was a surprise. I started printing out heavily trafficked webpages posted by Malaysian users and brought a sheaf of them to a professor at nearby Williams College, who read them over and informed me that we had become a major vehicle for expression for Malaysia’s opposition political group, Anwar Ibrahim's Reformasi movement.

The adoption of Tripod by Malaysian activists was not directly due to our use of an ad-supported model, but it was an unintended, positive consequence. We couldn’t find a way to make money from advertising to Malaysian users, and we had internal discussions about whether we should “cut our losses” and provide services only to users in countries where we could sell advertising, conversations that Facebook and other ad-supported companies are now wrestling with as they expand in the developing world. I’m glad that we made the right decision (morally, if not fiscally) and that Facebook, thus far, has done so as well.

The great benefit of an ad supported web is that it’s a web open to everyone. It supports free riders well, which has been key in opening the web to young people and those in the developing world. Ad support makes it very easy for users to “try before they buy,” eliminating the hard parts of the sales cycle, and allowing services like Twitter, Facebook, and Weibo to scale to hundreds of millions of users at an unprecedented rate. This, in turn has powerful network effects: Once all your high school classmates are on Facebook, there’s a strong temptation to join, even if you don’t like the terms of service, as it’s an efficient way to keep in touch with that social circle.

In theory, an ad-supported system is more protective of privacy than a transactional one. Subscriptions or micropayments resolved via credit card create a strong link between online and real-world identity, while ads have traditionally been targeted to the content they appear with, not to the demo/psychographic identity of the user. In practice, part of Facebook’s relentless drive to ensure all users are personally identifiable is to improve targeting and reassure advertisers that their messages are reaching real human beings.

And while we’re considering the benefits of an ad-supported web, it’s worth exploring the idea that the adoption of advertising as a business model normalized the web much more quickly than it otherwise would have spread. Companies like Tripod worked to convince massive companies that were at least a decade from selling online, like auto manufacturers, that they needed a presence on the web to build their brand in an important new media. (Second Life unsuccessfully tried the same strategy a decade later, persuading Pontiac to open dealerships for virtual cars.) Taking a small portion of the auto industry’s vast ad budget allowed companies to persuade investors that online advertising would be huge and brought those companies online years before they had a business need to do so.

* * *

An ad supported web grows quickly and is open to those who can’t or won’t pay. But it has at least four downsides as a default business model.

First, while advertising without surveillance is possible—unverifiable advertising was the only type of advertising through most of the 20th century—it’s hard to imagine online advertising without surveillance. The primary benefit of online advertising is the ability to see who’s looking at an ad. Simply paying for online advertising requires surveillance, if only to eliminate clickfraud. And if Cegłowski’s theory is true, there’s no apparent escape from escalating surveillance to create more attractive business propositions.

Second, not only does advertising lead to surveillance through the “investor storytime” mechanism, it creates incentives to produce and share content that generates pageviews and mouse clicks, but little thoughtful engagement. Clickbait has become so prominent that even Upworthy, popularizer of spreadable media as a tool for social change, is asking advertisers to consider how much attention readers are paying to content, rather than how many pageviews it generates. Some new media empires are so attached to advertising metrics that they are giving writers days off from “traffic whoring” duty to allow them to produce content that has greater social and informational value. While many newspapers are shielding their reporters from statistics about whether their stories are being read, the increasing importance of digital news outlets to the public sphere suggests we may get less news that helps us engage as citizens and more news designed to get us to click the “next page” button.

Third, the advertising model tends to centralize the web. Advertisers are desperate to reach large audiences as the reach of any individual channel shrinks. A generation ago, you could reach a significant fraction the the American population by buying ad time on four television networks. Very few companies can offer that “Superbowl ad” reach today. Advertisers purchase ads scattered across hundreds of sites, buying demographic targeting at the lowest rates available. Companies like Facebook want get as much of that money as possible, which means chasing users and reach. Using cash from investors and ad sales, they can acquire smaller companies that are starting to build rival networks. (See Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and, to a lesser extent, Whats App.) This centralization has dangers for online speech—it means decisions these platforms take to ban speech are as powerful as decisions made by governments, as Rebecca MacKinnon has eloquently documented.

Presented by

Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab. He is the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, published by W. W. Norton in June 2013.

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