The Original Sin of the Internet is that it pays its bills by selling our attention to the highest bidder. We’ve been focusing on Facebook at the moment, but as Ethan Zuckerman points out in an essay on the Atlantic.com site, Facebook is a symptom, not the problem.
I’ve referred to this bargain, in which people get content and services for free in exchange for having persuasive messages psychographically targeted to them, as the “original sin” of the internet. It’s a dangerous and socially corrosive business model that puts internet users under constant surveillance and continually pulls our attention from the tasks we want to do online toward the people paying to hijack our attention. It’s a terrible model that survives only because we haven’t found another way to reliably support most internet content and services—including getting individuals to pay for the things they claim to value.
We become aware of how uncomfortable this model is when Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica develop personality profiles of us so they can tailor persuasive messages to our specific personal quirks, but that’s exactly what any competent advertiser is doing, every day, on nearly every site online. If that makes you feel uncomfortable: Good, it should. But the problem is way bigger than Facebook. This is a known bug not just with social networks, but with the contemporary, ad-supported web as a whole.
He makes the point that the real response to the recognition of this larger problem is the need we all have to find a business model that makes it easy to support responsible writing.
Mr. Pulitzer’s business model of supporting local newspapers has led us to the Internet we now have. Perhaps we need to go back further into our history to look at other models that have been used to support broad communications platforms.