Photo by Markus Spiske
From its birth in the mid-1990s, the web has held out the allure of individual empowerment. It spares us from having to slog to the bank to pay a bill or dig out the phonebook to find a number. But it also enables us to do certain things we couldn’t do before—things we hardly notice anymore, but that once would have seemed magical.
The web gave anyone with a computer and a modem the power to engage in mass communication, to speak directly to thousands or even millions of people—something previously only national TV networks, newspapers or satellite radio stations could do. Some of us remember encountering the web for the first time, in the mid 90s, and feeling bewildered by this. It took most of us years to even begin to understand it. Markets and audiences that were once too small, too dispersed, too hard to reach were now larger, closer and more accessible. Watching these great physical and social barriers collapse seemed exciting, baffling and liberating all at once.
In the quarter century since, cyberspace has evolved almost beyond recognition. The few who saw further ahead than the rest have built out the platforms that dominate much of our lives online. The top sites are almost all run by mammoth corporations, with an overwhelming flow of content with which no small site can compete. One of us might post a video that goes viral, only to see it soon peter out. Some can boast a large following on social media, but, in most cases, such people were already famous. What the net empowers the rest of us to do is unclear.
Yet the web still holds out amazing technical possibilities. We’re still free to post, link and share without permission. We can still connect with anyone anywhere in the world. And, in theory, we can still engage in mass communication. But, amidst all the chaos and noise online, all the concentration around a select few mega-sites and YouTube stars: are these tools still meaningfully empowering? Can someone with no name recognition and no money still have a say online, or pitch a product and gain traction with many more people than would have been the case before 1994?
Can this be done? It certainly can if you’re out to troll or shock. But what if you’re not? Has cyberspace become so cacophonous and fractious that trying to speak online is like shooting a squirt gun through a firehose? If you launch a blog or a site for your business, or have paid links on Google, can you get much further today than you could by launching a ’zine back in the day, or putting an ad in the local newspaper? Is the empowerment we once felt now just an illusion?
Getting Real About the Web
We’re now in a good position to assess this, given how thoroughly the attention economy has been studied. The findings are not encouraging. They splash cold water on much of the early idealism about the web that still lingers, and for this we should be grateful. But the realists paint only part of the picture. If we want a more nuanced view of what remains possible on the web, we need to hear from other voices.
But let’s start with the bad news.
One of the most insightful and well informed voices in the realist camp is Matthew Hindman, a pioneering political scientist, who began to study the internet’s impact on democracy roughly fifteen years ago. Back then, Hindman set out by asking a simple question: now that most citizens have the tools to engage in mass communication, do more of them have a voice in public debate? Has the web made the public sphere more accessible to a greater diversity of voices?
Many of the web’s early boosters were confident that the answer was yes. Mass media conglomerates would soon dissolve and the net would give rise to an army of Davids. Yochai Benkler, in The Wealth of Networks (2006), saw hopeful signs in the flowering of peer-to-peer sharing and open-source development. We could expect to see less creation on the “industrial model,” with its “ever-larger investments of physical capital”—in printing presses, radio and TV transmitters, cable and satellite systems—and more things made by peers, using cheap or free digital communications. Clay Shirky lauded a shift toward the “mass amateurization” of production. Others saw a bright future for journalism.
In books that appeared in 2008 and 2018, Hindman offered a dramatically different picture of how production and communication were unfolding online. He gathered copious data on site traffic around hundreds of venues, and made findings that point to larger trends online. While the number of outlets for news has grown, the audience “remains highly concentrated” around a few national newspapers and venues. Local and small-circulation papers garner a smaller share of users online than they did in print. TV news has retained its dominant position. The pool of journalists has “plummeted,” and “digital media are just as dependent on a few corporate gatekeepers as ever.”
Hindman’s takeaway: the web has not made political speech more accessible or diverse. Building a news site that can compete with the larger venues is still “hugely expensive,” as it was before the web. Blogs did not democratize the production of news or debate. As Hindman found in 2008, “of the perhaps one million citizens who write a political blog, only a few dozen have more readers than does a small-town newspaper. For every blogger who reaches a significant audience, ten thousand journal in obscurity.” Roughly half the total audience, at that time, congregated around the top ten blogs. And most of those ten were authored by liberal white males, educated at ivy-league schools.
The Imaginary Internet
Hindman says that the early web optimists misunderstood the nature of the web. They derived false hope from a belief in what he terms the “imaginary internet.” In this version of cyberspace, audiences are dispersed “thinly” across thousands of sites and many, if not most, people who go looking for personalized content spend most of their time at millions of smaller venues. Movement among them is fluid and friction-free, spreading traffic generously throughout the web.
On the real internet, however, we don’t migrate to smaller niche sites in search of more personalized content: we move in hordes toward the big sites with ample content that is frequently refreshed, and don’t often stray. For Hindman, the central fact of the internet is not its open, democratic, egalitarian structure, but its tendency to centralize and to favour dominant players. Everywhere we look online, we find hierarchy: “audiences follow concentrated power law patterns,” with distributions of 80–90% of users to 10–20% of sites. The pattern replicates, in fractal fashion, at every level and in every niche.
The internet, for Hindman, is best understood not as a level playing field or an egalitarian public square, but as a jungle where a fierce Darwinian struggle unfolds. The decisive factor in the evolutionary contest is “stickiness,” by which he means not just a site’s appeal as a compelling place to spend time, but its rate of growth. More popular sites build stickiness by ensuring that they load faster, are better designed, frequently updated and employ users in making and filtering content. Stickiness emerges not from any one of these done well, but from their small effects in combination, over time.
The task is daunting: “Building an online audience is like pumping air into a balloon with a slow leak. One has to keep pumping, to keep up a constant level of investment, or previous efforts will quickly be lost.” The net may have brought the cost of distribution down, but gaining an audience online involves more than just distribution. It also involves producing content—copious quantities of it—and doing so for years on end. Few small sites can compete, given the costs of hiring people to do enough posting, tweaking and testing. Yet there’s no happy middle. You’re either at the top of the tail, getting lots of sunshine, or buried somewhere at the bottom, in near total darkness.
The Lingering Idealist Camp
Over in what we might call the lingering idealist camp, David Weinberger has written many brilliant books on the shift from broadcast forms of media to digital. Weinberger takes a long view of the internet, noting how, over time, we tend to lose sight of the net’s core architecture—and broader power—by perceiving the net through today’s “prototypical” use of it. In the 80s, we saw the net as a giant bulletin board, then in the 90s, it was the web, and then it was social media, and now it’s mobile.
Yet the core is where the magic lies—in the free movement of data packets “without any central management or control,” “without favouritism based on content, sender, recipient”: the “freedom to connect, share, post without permission.” The question, for Weinberger, is whether the layers built on top of the net’s core structure hinder us from harnessing its power.
He agrees that no one can compete with the big venues—with their faster proprietary cables and pipes, massive server farms and economies of scale in content. But, whether you spend much of your time in a walled garden or never leave Facebook or WeChat, you still partake of the net’s basic freedoms. You experience, directly, the power of the core architecture in your freedom to post, link and explore without permission. You enjoy an endless diversity of content. And the open web itself is always only a click away.
This leads Weinberger to a qualified optimism:
If you have an idea that would use the Internet as a service for connecting customers or for moving information around, you are as free to build it now as you were 20 years ago. The economic ecosystem has gotten much more difficult for you if you’re trying to compete against a giant, especially if that giant is supported by network effects the way so many of them are. But it’s by no means unimaginable that someone could start up a search site that becomes viable, or an online bookstore, or even a new social networking site.
We can already imagine Hindman shaking his head. Weinberger conflates the freedom to speak online with the right to be heard. You might be as free to build today as you were twenty years ago, Hindman might say, but you will be whispering into a storm. We are, it would seem, at an impasse.
For advice on how to move beyond this, we can look to Hindman himself.
How to Still Be Heard Online
Hindman’s latest book culminates in a series of pointers to small news outlets about how to grow their profile on the net and save local journalism. The advice applies to anyone aspiring to create something online. Some of the points may seem obvious, but, taken together, they give us a better sense of the combination of things to do to be heard above the fray. And, in theory, they’re all still things anyone can do.
Hindman’s largest takeaway is to focus not on traffic but on growth or stickiness. Growth is cumulative, based on several facets. Surprisingly, the “single most consistent finding” is that “faster load times lead to higher traffic.” Even a delay as brief as a tenth of a second matters. Site design and layout are crucial. A site’s aesthetic polish and ease of navigation are considered “proxies” for quality and trustworthiness, leading to more use and higher sales. Any tools or techniques for personalizing or recommending content also help, including the now ubiquitous lists of “most popular” or “most emailed.”
For Hindman, the second most pressing imperative is to post frequently and post a lot. A senior executive at the Atlantic told Hindman: “If users return to your site and find that nothing has changed, you have just taught them to come back less frequently.” Quantity matters more than quality: more precisely, higher volume sites tend to attract more users than lower volume sites with quality “well matched” to user interest. Employ as many forms of media as possible: “text stories that include videos or even simple slide shows typically outperform text alone.”
Small, independent creators should also seek to harness the power of A/B testing, a vital tool in the arsenal of the larger sites. From the outset, the giants have engaged in constant testing of speed, layout and design. Smaller sites might do so with headlines, article or video formats, or the use of multimedia. The goal, as Hindman notes, is not to look for changes in total traffic, but in growth rate, and to be concerned not with large or momentary shifts, but with small changes that make people more likely to return, and with growth tracked over weeks or months.
A Balanced View
Hindman’s real internet is one where you can still be heard above the din of surrounding sites and float upward, if not to the very top. But it will take time, focus and unrelenting commitment.
Hindman shows that corporations are destined to dominate the web’s most popular sites because production online at the highest level is no less costly, nor any less industrial in scale, than it was in the age of print. But Hindman also shows that many of the basic strategies that lead to growth and garner attention over time are onerous, but not necessarily costly.
If we look carefully, we find voices and venues gaining traction by using something close to the Hindman formula. Frequent posting, multimedia (using one or more vehicles, such as a blog, a YouTube channel and a podcast) and lots of experimentation. Not necessarily to earn a living, but simply to be heard.
The internet still empowers us, by enabling us to do things we could never do before. But, a quarter-century after the birth of the web, as the medium continues to evolve, so too does our understanding of how the net empowers us. It may be more challenging to deploy the tools of the web in ambitious ways. But it can be done.