The Free Internet Is Eating Itself

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Source:   —  April 07, 2016, at 4:58 PM

They'll be shifting their photo feed from a chronological list to an algorithmically driven one, ordered based on which posts they think you'll love most.

The Free Internet Is Eating Itself

Instagram and the Cult of the Attention Web

I'm disappointed about Instagram'south most recent announcement. They'll be shifting their photo feed from a chronological list to an algorithmically driven one, ordered based on which posts they think you'll love most. My disappointment isn't based in nostalgia or a lament of change. I'm disappointed because the decision is a symptom of a larger problem that's eating the web.

***

Over the past few decades a significant piece of the economy has shifted. Once upon a time companies and services were geared toward enticing you out of your money. Today, the goal of many is to lure you out of your time. Which, in turn, is leveraged as collateral to invite money from advertisers.

Our current version of the internet lives and breathes off a currency of human attention. With the success and failure of many internet companies predicated on how much of a person'south time they can capture.

This model has reshaped much of the internet into an "attention web", with companies fighting tooth and nail to own every possible moment of your time.

As laid out in a recent NY Times piece about the Instagram change:

"These companies wish to always, always give you the following best thing to see at," said Brian Blau, a vice president at Gartner, an industry research firm. "If an algorithm can give you much more engaging content more frequently, you'll adhere around longer."

The more time people spend using Instagram, the more frequently the company is able to serve people ads.

It'south the Faustian bargain we've all struck. In exchange for a "free" web, we give you our time. Unfortunately, this structure is unsustainable and is compromising both our experience of the web and the quality of the things we consume.

***

Time is more precious than money. Money is a renewable resource. Everyone always has the potential to create more money. Time, on the other hand, is finite. There are only so many hours in a day. By definition, you only have so much time to give.

The finite nature of time means that, in the world of the attention web, the competitive landscape is all encompassing. Everything is in contest with everything else. Facebook is as much in contest with Twitter, as it's with Spotify and Apple Music, Gawker and BuzzFeed, Hulu and YouTube, Confection Crush and Four Dots, Amazon and Walmart, Xbox and Playstation, Chipotle and your family dinner table, your hobbies and your bed. Because in the attention web, time spent shopping, eating, talking, playing, or sleeping is time that you're not looking at ads. It'south why Facebook has experimented with in-feed shopping. It'south why they bought a messaging app and VR company. It'south behind their huge drive into video, as well as article self-publishing. They've to compete on all fronts to win the attention war. If they could serve up your meals they would.

"The finite nature of time means that, in the world of the attention web, the competitive landscape is all encompassing."

Coca-cola talks about trying to win "share of stomach", acknowledging that they're not just in contest with the other players in the drink industry, but in contest with every other food company and restaurant for the finite resource of stomach genuine estate. The attention web has taken this concept to a new scale that pits a vast array of industries against each other. This broad, unending contest for people'south time takes it'south toll on even the most favorite services. Look Twitter, Yahoo, Zynga and others.

As with all finite resources, there is a physical cap to how much time can be mined from the world, with pop size as the forcing function. The no of people on the internet is directly proportional to the quantity of time available. If you assume that technology companies wish to support their growth curves, there are three possible avenues for them to get against this constraint:

Grow the size of the pop with internet access.

Free up more time for the people who already have internet access.

Or create more people.

While number tech company is currently trying to create more people (except maybe Tinder) the other two paths have already started to manifest. Major players are trying to widen global internet access. Facebook'south internet. org initiative is geared toward bringing free internet access to populations without it, and Google'south Project Loon is designed to create a balloon-based network delivering dependable internet to isolated rural areas.

Google is also one of the best examples of a company taking the second avenue: free up more time for people who already have internet. Their thrust into self driving car technology has a lot of potential benefits for humanity, but it also does something fundamental for Google and their business model. Time spent in the car is a vast untapped reserve of human attention. If your daily commute isn't filled with trivial things love watching the road and trying not to murder people you suddenly have a lot more time to search  --  and be served look for ads. Building a self driving car may seem love extreme measures just to free up people'south time, but it'south really just the tech equivalent of fracking  --  Oil'south extreme attempt to unlock untapped reserves.

At some point though, the reserves running out, and as more and more competitors (from nearly every industry) arrive onto the scene, all vying for their slice of the time pie, simply expanding internet access and freeing up time isn't enough. You still have to win people's attention.

***

Ostensibly the drive to capture share of attention should be a large win for consumers. Based on the principles of human-centered design, companies should be striving for the best possible user experience and highest quality content in order to win the hearts, minds and, ultimately, the time of would be users. But, frequently the attention web takes a different direction.

Instead of streamlined experiences, filled with quality content, we've seen the rise of clickbait headlines, listicles and ad-saturated UIs that are slow, cumbersome and sometimes down right unusable, particularly on mobile screens.

In the attention web we finish up with feeds that see love this:

And then we click through to a mess like this  --  with auto-playing video ads and inline ads that suddenly appear mid-scroll.

The drive for attention has also influenced the way we speak about products. As designers we're expected to create things "custom forming". Obtain people "hooked." And turn monthly "users" into daily "users." The only other people I know who call their customers users are drug dealers.

This rhetoric has made companies more and more aggressive about pushing their agenda into our lives. Floods of emails, thrust notifications, text notifications, daily reminders, and weekly digests are the norm in the attention web.

We aren't creating human-centered experiences. We're creating attention-centered experiences, which puts the needs of the business squarely ahead of the needs of the customer.

Which brings us back to Instagram.

***

A long time ago I picked my horse in the social media race and it was Instagram. It'south one of the few services that, in my opinion, totally nailed the intersection between human desire and the capabilities enabled by the internet. It'south the kind of product the internet was born to produce. And, as I look it, has the potential to be around for the long haul.

The desire to preserve and share memories is uniquely human and is as elderly as cave drawings and the spoken word. It's always been in us and it'll always be in us. The magic of Instagram is that it delivers on that inborn desire in a beautifully crafted, deeply human experience. One that's so ordinary it becomes second nature, allowing you to co-create an interwoven legend of your life and the lives happening around you, visualized, in real-time, as a stunningly artistic, chronological archive of photographs.''

"We're creating attention-centered experiences, which puts the needs of the business squarely ahead of the needs of the customer."

That's a pretty and powerful cost proposition. Something that hits on a genuine human necessity and drives genuine connection. It's an example of what creating a human-centered experience should ultimately be.

For a long time (surprisingly long actually) Instagram maintained that magic. Keeping the feature set tiny and the experience pure. Which is in sharp contrast to the rest of the social world, which promises connection in a bloated tangle of features and gimmicks.

But, alas, a business has to pay the bills. And in the attention web, when the devil of income comes calling, the simple out is ads. Or, in the parlance of our time, "sponsored posts".

So Instagram instituted sponsored posts. Step one. And presently comes the second step: the algorithmic feed. The NYT piece states that this modify won't impact how Instagram ads are served, and it won't, they're already algorithmically targeted. But it changes something else. Something more fundamental.

An algorithmic feed changes the skill of influencers and brands on Instagram to reach people. It changes the skill of accounts to be discovered. Instagram is making this move just when brands are really starting to figure out how to leverage the platform. Strategically this makes sense for the business because brands have found the cost of the platform, so when the new feed starts to erode that value, they'll be more likely to stay and pay for promoted posts. The same scenario has already played out on Facebook (Instagram'south parent). And it works. Facebook is doing beautiful well from a income perspective. And so, Instagram will continue to head down the same road. And, as has happened with other services, as the Instagram experience falls deeper and deeper into the attention web'south monetization trap it'south likely the magic will fade.

***

The problem is that you can't fault Instagram, or any of the other service out there that'south playing the attention web game. It'south we, the people of the internet, who have set the rules of engagement. We wish our web and we wish it for free. However, the inconvenient truth is that there is a cost to doing business and at some point companies have to make money.

And so we sacrifice the magic. We devalue content and products by refusing to pay for the work it takes to create and support them. We're satisfied wading through poorly designed, ad-based experiences. And we authorize our most precious resource, our time, to become a product to be traded, sold and manipulated. Our data is mined, our privacy discarded and our actions tracked all in the title of more targeted advertising.

And it'south not even the best scenario for companies either. In Q4 of two thousand fifteen Facebook brought in $5.9 billion in income with 1.59 billion active users/month. That'south roughly $1.23 of revenue/user/month. If, in the same quarter, Facebook moved far from ads and instead charged each active user just $1.50 a mo for the service, their Q4 two thousand fifteen income would've increased by $1.2 billion dollars, from $5.9 billion to $7.1 billion.

"We devalue content and products by refusing to pay for the work it takes to create and maintain them."

Now, what if Facebook started using that additional .2 billion to pay content creators for posting quality content on the platform? Similar to what Netflix does. And what if other major platforms love Twitter and YouTube followed the same model? Suddenly the income sources for content creators starts to diversify. The reliance on advertisers wanes. Feeds are number longer designed to cover creators and friends in order to drive ads, they're designed to promote connection and shine a light on creators. Bloated, ad-filled UIs start to disappear. Content loads faster. Creators expand more immersive content experiences focused on the people using them. The balance of power flips back to the user.

Maybe this is a utopian dream, and I'm sure a lot of people will declare it'd never work for lots of reasons. However, if we're willing to start paying for the products and services we use, we stop being the product and we start being the driver. And when users are the driver, companies will focus on adding value, not just grabbing our attention.

This legend was originally posted on Medium. If you liked it, chase me on Medium for more stories like it.

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