Wednesday, July 4, 20185 comments

Independence

Today, we seem to spend more time shouting insults than trying to understand each other. Go to Twitter. Click on a trending story. Look at what we’re saying about Trump. Look at what we’re saying about immigrants. Look at what we’re saying about each other. Rage is now our dominant cultural currency.

This breakdown has more to do with internet business models than might seem obvious. Right now, the primary force driving the media is an online advertising machine that has become ever more efficient and indifferent. The machine aggregates our attention through whatever means possible so that it may be turned into dollars.

This machine has built some of the most valuable companies ever known, but it doesn’t care how its riches are won. It will do whatever is necessary to capture our attention and auction it off, even if that means turning us against each other by feeding us outrage and lies, giving us Pizzagate, a resurgence of Flat Earthers, and, among some, the conviction that kids who are upset at seeing their friends killed in the classroom are actually just actors. Even the most powerful people within the machine can do little to stop it. It’s bigger than any individual, no matter how well-intentioned. What are they supposed to do? Shut down their businesses?

But we have not yet reached the point of no return. The machine doesn’t have to win. We can fix this by restoring independence in the media; by freeing it from the tyranny of the machine.

One of the online ad machine’s worst effects is that it has endangered the media’s financial independence. It has destroyed the business model that once supported a healthy media ecosystem. Now, writers are under intense financial pressure, which makes them more vulnerable to corrupting influences and less able to resist the urge to sacrifice their credibility. They are being sold to billionaires; they are being pushed to sensationalism; they are being aggregated to insolvency. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Now, more than ever, we need a robust independent media that can provide a common, truthful view of the society we live in—a necessary condition if we are to have a hope of solving the problems we face. To restore this sense of trust, society’s best writers need to be freed from ad platforms.

For as long as the media business adheres to the machine’s diktats, it will be trapped. And so the rules have to change. We have to stop feeding the machine with our data, our time, and our attention. Instead, we must build an ecosystem based on direct payments between media producers and consumers. Writers should be paid by the readers who trust them. Then, incentives are aligned: writers are loyal only to readers and rewarded for delivering value. Trust is prized over manipulation. In such a world, there’s no need to be a loud-mouth on social media, or to stoke outrage, or to sacrifice nuance for the sake of “cut-through.”

The writers who figure out how to use subscription models to their advantage will attain independence. Because they are paid directly by subscribers, they won’t have to worry that an algorithm tweak might ruin their business. They won’t have to worry about whether or not an employer will survive the volatile times. They won’t have to worry about a publisher’s “pivot to video,” or layoffs, or buy-outs, or mergers, or traffic goals, or a Twitter mob getting them fired. They will be able to produce important work without fear of upsetting an employer, advertiser, or benefactor. They will be in control of their own destinies.

That’s a future worth fighting for not only because it will help writers do their best work, but also because it will free society from the online ad machine. We will have the power to excise the rage from our dialogue and seek to understand each other once again. Then, we can get back to affirming our most important rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Happy Independence Day.

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