Are The Economics of the Web Making Us Stupid?

Whenever someone talks about how the internet is making us stupid, I tend to get a little skeptical.

After all, for all the worry about how our attention spans are being shortened by the fast pace of the web, or how the internet is full of trash, there is another side.

The internet is also absolutely chock full of smart, challenging material: philosophy videos on YouTube, descriptions of Chinese classical music, sites dedicated to intellectuals or entire sites meant to spread cultural theory. There is tons of this stuff everywhere.

But there is another aspect to having access to so much stuff. Because there’s so much content online – good and bad – people need to make their content easy to find. One of the ways they do this is to optimize for ‘search engine optimization’. Another way is to just produce a ton of stuff and hope you’ll stumble on to it. It floods the web with junk and puts out scads of information that may or may not be correct.

This is a problem. And at the root of this problem is that sticky, impossibly mystery that plagues everyone who has anything to do with the web: “How do you make money online?”

So what do the economics of the web and our collective intelligence have to do with each other?

 

We 'Demand' More Content

Making money on the web is hard. Like, really hard. I mean, the New York Times can’t figure out how to do it well. Much of this has to do with how poorly advertising works online. You know those banner ads and flashing windows you see on web sites everywhere? Less than 1% of surfers will click on those. Advertisers know this, and thus will pay incredibly low rates for ads – often something like $8 for every thousand ‘impressions’ (or unique hits). So you can imagine how many hits a website has to draw in just to break even.

As a result, websites that want to make money have one of two options: hit on some magic formula (or just be incredibly good) and draw in hundreds of thousands of readers a day (like the NYT or Gawker); or create thousands and thousands of pieces of content under one umbrella and collect advertising revenue on every last scrap of it.

The latter path is a lot more common that you’d think. One of its most famous practitioners is Demand Media. Demand, who run sites like eHow.com, LIVESTRONG and Cracked.com, is in the ‘content creation business”. What that means is that Demand media runs an algorithm to find certain terms that would rank well on Google. According to this recent PBS piece, these terms can be as varied as “How to Wear a Sweater Vest” to “How to Increase Your Investment Returns”. It’s essentially content geared to lure in random searchers.

“Freelance contributors” are paid a small amount – $15 – to churn out an article based on those search terms. They have no specific training in the topic they are writing on. They are not specialists. And they are not professional researchers. In fact, in that PBS piece, some Demand writers openly acknowledge how little they know – like the guy who worried that anyone who followed his instructions for making gin might get poisoned.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that, even in the dire world of contemporary print, $15 for an article would be considered worse than an insult – indeed, most writers would rather write for free than such a small amount. But beyond accusations of inflated egos, it means that Demand’s articles are often low quality and riddled with errors because the people writing them, even when they’re very smart, are just not very good or well-researched or even accurate. What’s more, there are thousands of them. Tens of thousands, in fact.

So you could see where we might have a problem. Because one of the only responses to web economics is quantity or volume – i.e. to make up for poor advertising revenue by just putting out a whackload of stuff –  is obviously going to have an effect on quality, because the only thing you can do is pay bottom-dollar for poor, quickly produced content.

So essentially, the economics of the web is helping to fill the web with crap.

 

How The Web=Dickens (And Why We Need to Go Back To School)

What may not be obvious is that something like this has happened before. In the nineteenth century, printing costs started to go way down because of advancements in technology. As a result, publishers started putting out serialized stories in pamphlet form. So what we today think of as a pulp fiction novel would have in fact been put out in a series of what came to be known as Penny Dreadfuls. The same type of publishing was also used for what we now consider to be literary classics like Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist, which were published in serialized pamphlets that people would read on the train to London or something similar.

So suddenly, because the economics of spreading information had changed, you had whole new groups in society reading new things. And you know what the response was? The invention of literary study. No, seriously.

Before the nineteenth century, no-one considered literature to be worth studying. It was thought of as fun and as entertainment. But when ‘the masses’ began to read it, many people began to feel they had to be taught how to interpret and deal with all those new ideas. And so literary studies were born, where people would discuss symbols and ‘the meaning of the story’ and whether or not it was moral in order to grapple with this new form of spreading ideas. (Of course, the argument is that they were simply taught how to think like docile, obedient animals, but that’s another discussion.)

So the web is like the invention of cheap reading material. And what it demands (heh) is that we have to learn how to deal with and evaluate all this new information.

That means incorporating web literacy into school curricula. It means teaching people how to recognize good information from bad information. It means training people how to look for sources and cross check facts.

 

Our Demand-ing Future

There are many problems with the current state of information on the web. The economics of online media mean that much of the internet is an unending sea of quickly-produced, poorly researched trash made to lure in Googlers looking for a quick tip.

There are only two long-term solutions: that people stop visiting these sources of information (which isn’t going to happen); or that someone figure out new revenue models that rely on quality and personalization more than quantity and being generic.

In the meantime, what’s clear is that people need a new set of skills to deal with this new information glut. Just like a world learned to interpret and deal with penny pamphlet literature, so too does it need to learn how to cope with the internet.

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang
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Comments
  • http://xxx.com drhouse

    The suggestion to have a web studies course is off the mark. What you need is critical analysis of all media which is universal and already taught in colleges. This involves logic and the understanding of concepts such as ad hominem, strawmen, slippery slope, gatekeepers etc…

  • Les Moore

    I wouldn’t say it is making us stupid. I would say it is making us lazy, as I do tend to rely more on things like spell check.

  • Gary Gregg

    The web is definitely making us more stupid. One day our great great great grandchildren will look back at the internet, see LOLCats, and say WTF!?

  • Matthew

    Is it wrong to point out that in an article where the author is critical of writers not doing proper research he doesn’t show his sources, on the 19th-century literary studies info at least?

    Web studies would need to happen before college. It should start in primary school when a child might do their first report on a particular topic and possibly use the internet as a source for information. As a child progresses through grades the discussion would then become more in-depth so that by college, if the student decides to go, the talk can be about critical analysis of media etc. That would create a baseline, in theory, of education in much the same way that Navneet’s article says happened after the creation of penny pamphlets.