Breaking off the engagement

The ad-peddling model that dominates the internet and hijacks our minds is costing us too much by being “free”

For nearly two decades, social media giants have showered us with content while accepting nothing in return – other than our engagement. Now, with the normalization of online vitriol, the skyrocketing rates of mental distress linked to social media, and the surrender of intimate information to unaccountable corporations, it has become obvious that we are massively overpaying – so obvious that even Big Social is now branding its old offerings in new flavors. But a minty fresh cigarette is still a cigarette. 

For a while, it felt like we were getting a great deal. Social media giants gave us rekindled friendships, family photos, even the occasional uplifting story or useful insight. But too much of what we’ve received has been toxic gruel, tube-fed (through aptly named “feeds”) by sophisticated algorithms designed to exploit our worst impulses and keep us agitated, excited, engaged. 

The marks of this new and uglier world are everywhere. We have become conditioned to accept that viciously tearing down complete strangers online is normal and admirable, and that it is right and proper for a bad tweet from decades ago to ruin someone’s life. A new vocabulary – “doom-scrolling!” “hate-reading!” – is now necessary to capture how dysfunctional online activity has become. Even worse, these poisonous dynamics have leached into our offline lives, in the form of broken relationships, decreased attention spans, and damaged mental health. 

This doesn’t mean that social media cannot be used in productive ways, that ads and algorithms are evil in themselves, or that we users don’t bear responsibility for our own behavior. Rather, all of it shows that we are paying in the wrong currency, with devastating consequences. When platforms make their livings by harvesting and selling our attention, they achieve that by shoving unsolicited junk into our minds, while we obediently scroll down and down and down. 

One day, we will look back on this early era as a dark age, when we wrongly assumed that no one would pay for great writing on the internet, that writers could be valued only by how much attention they could command, and that readers could be played for suckers. The good news is that there is finally a clear way out.

It all starts by paying with a currency we can understand and measure: money. This is how we take back control.

With money, you know exactly what you’re paying and to whom, and you can cancel payments when you want. Transactions become transparent, and incentives become properly aligned. While platforms that depend on ad sales must harvest attention any way they can, platforms that depend on people’s willingness to pay must foster trust and satisfaction. Writers succeed only if readers are happy, and in turn platforms succeed only if writers are happy. In this world, users are finally at the table rather than on the menu. 

For writers, this means being able to control their relationships with their audience instead of being mediated by fickle corporations whose algorithms decide what gets the most attention. It means independent writers can be well paid by the people who value their work instead of having to play hunger games for a share of an advertising pie where the biggest slices always go to the platforms. And when they answer to their readers instead of to the platform, writers are free to do their best work. 

For readers, the effect is just as profound. It means having more control over what you put in your mind. When an engagement-based algorithm isn’t prompting you to scroll just a little further down the feed, you are free to make content consumption decisions thoughtfully and intentionally, based on what you find trustworthy. 

We know it can work, because it already does. Creator-focused companies such as Teachable (courses and coaching), Clubhouse (live audio), and Substack are subverting the attention economy by putting people, not platforms, in charge. These companies are all young, but they already account for millions of daily active users and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity, the majority of which accrues to the creators. In fact, this model is working so well that even the social media giants now are dabbling in it – a welcome development, albeit one that evokes Joe Camel offering you a Nicorette.

Still, the ad peddlers will continue to claim that their product is “free,” and that the memes, trolls, and hot takes on their platforms are minor side effects rather than the active ingredients. But we now know that the lower the price, the more we’re paying. 

We all thought we had lost our minds, but it turns out we just pawned them. Now it’s time to buy them back.

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