Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Donald Trump, Drama and the hidden price of 'Free'

(~ 10 minute read)

A lot of people wonder how exactly Donald Trump managed to go from being a running gag to actually running for President of the United States! Lots of people have lots of theories from various perspectives, but I believe that the nature of the Internet itself (cat videos, memes and all) is also largely responsible for the fact that Trump was able to capture the public imagination the way he did.

If you're reading this, chances are that you spend quite a bit of time on the Internets. Most of you probably use it as a utility, like roads or public transportation; you don't need to worry about how it works, you just have to open an app or your browser and get to it!

Something is changing now though, and I think it's important that we understand what it really means that most of what we get online (Social media, online magazines, stuff like that) is available for free. Forget all the if-you're-not-paying-for-the-product-then-you're-the-product stuff, this goes much deeper.

The current situation is this:
  • The Internet as you know it is almost entirely paid for with advertiser money.
  • BUT, almost no-one clicks on ads. It's something like 2 clicks (or less) per 1000 'impressions'. [1]
  • If you're an ad-supported site, the only way to make the math work is to have immense traffic coming to your site to justify advertisers still paying you.
  • "Real Journalism" and "Quality Content" only get you so far so you need to start selling-out pretty quick. And click-baity titles are just the start of it...
  • Along comes someone like Donald Trump; A large, public figure that everyone loves to hate and with a lot of media attention. So even more articles get written (with his name prominently in the title) because they know people might just hate-click. (Much like this very article, actually)
  • Trump definitely understands this dynamic and so takes care to make himself as divisive and visible as possible and Boom, he's the Republican nominee (and probably the President by now, if you're reading this in the future).
It's like the old line about there not being any free lunches; well, mostly everything is free and it turns out that the price we pay is having to deal with people like Trump. It doesn't just stop with him though, this is something that virtually every public entity has to deal with, from politicians to newspapers to media personalities. Everyone is vying for eyeballs and if a little 'shock and awe' rhetoric is needed then that's exactly what will get used. The problem is that even if the speaker knows it's just a publicity tool, his audience might actually get riled up and so we the people are getting angrier at each other and we're not even entirely sure why.

It gets worse before it gets better unfortunately:

Nuance is dying

I don't know if you've heard of The Last Psychiatrist but they're kind of amazing! Sadly each post is several thousand words long though and extremely dense in parts (but also incredibly funny, in a dark sort of way) and the thing is that our current ad-supported ecosystem doesn't support that kind of engagement. If you're on one site for too long, that's less ads that can be shown to you so it's better to have short pithy articles that you can click away from as soon as possible. (for example, I'm trying to keep this article as short as possible. Almost done, promise!)

And so as competition gets more fierce and as everything gets more noisy, everyone needs to be get progressively louder and angrier and scandalous-er to keep people's attentions. There's also an incentive to produce content as quickly as possible, which discourages any kind of painstaking, labour intensive research process or anything. Think of the rise of gaming channels on YouTube and the fall of sketch-comedy channels. (see also: the rise of "Drama" in every possible medium)

The only real currency is Attention

In this ad-supported economy we find ourselves in, the only thing that really matters is your Attention. That's the final thing that's absolutely and actually scarce, because we can only consume so much media at one time and you can only create so much at a time. (Thank you for spending some Attention on me btw. It means the world, you have no idea!)

The latter is less valuable to The System though, because creating means there's less time for you to consume! So while they might pay lip-service to the "value" of creators, your real value to this current system is as a consumer.

It may already be too late

I'm not going to lie, things look pretty bleak right now and I'm not sure what can be done.

What I'm both scared and hopeful about is that this is not one of those times that some legislation or system change can solve everything. For example as soon as our cities produce electricity using renewable resources, our homes automatically become greener without us needing to do anything extra. However unlike electricity generation, this problem is not centralized; it's with the entire media landscape i.e. it's dispersed among each one of us. What we need to build as a priority is our individual understanding of the situation.

Mostly just understand that your Attention is the key thing everyone is vying for, it's less about your actual Money as such. Oh, speaking of which...

Pay for stuff whenever possible (please)

Not to be preachy (well maybe a little) but all of this is happening because we've been borrowing against the future and trying to build "audiences" in the hopes of someday making the money back.

Next time you're consuming anything, think about the value it's adding to you and consider paying something small as a 'Thank You'. I mean, even giant organizations like the Church won't turn away your ₹50 (or local equivalent) donation and they're practically raking in the dough!

Also don't worry, I'm not talking about your illegal streaming habit so much as all the small things you might consume that are a part of your daily life that are created without the backing of massive media companies or investors.(If I were smarter about this maybe this would be the point where I pitch my Patreon page or ask for a donation... *sigh*)

If you really can't afford it, that's fine! Switch to Linux if you can't afford Windows, maybe 'like' a video if you can't afford to pledge money to a YouTuber... do whatever you can at that moment.

If nothing else, create as much as possible

Honestly, the most dangerous, rebellious, disruptive thing you could possible do is to create. Create anything, even a tweet's worth of content, but put it somewhere that you have control over it (like on your own website) where you decide whether an ad gets slapped next to it. Posting that witty insight to twitter or Facebook just gives up your creativity to people who'll then monetize the living shit out of it.

Or y'know what, post it to wherever you like. Anything's fine, just try and have fun with it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Further reading: 
[1] Display advertising clickthrough rates