For those of us who came of age in the modern internet era, one of the common points of pride has been the democratic nature of the web. Unlike in traditional media, where vertically integrated conglomerates have historically controlled most of the distribution channels, the internet offered the promise of a more fragmented media landscape and greater choice for consumers.
Internet equality is probably not something that a normal, everyday user would think much about, but in the publisher community, the notion of internet equality is rooted in a sense of communications populism where everyone from the big companies all the way to your next door neighbor with the food & travel blog should have the same opportunity to be heard and build audiences.
While that sounds great in theory, the reality of the internet is that it – like the broader economy – is dominated by the ‘one per cent’. Publishers are flocking to Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube to build their audiences and find themselves ever more reliant on these platforms for consumers to discover their content and generate revenue.
To complicate matters, the rise of ad blockers has now created the beginning of a perverse pay-to-play system where publishers now pay these ad blocking gatekeepers a fee to be whitelisted and their ads shown to consumers. The impact of this is that the biggest publishers will be in a better position to ‘buy their way in’ thus, putting smaller publishers at a disadvantage.
The frustration we see today among the American masses in regards to whom our economic system is ultimately working best for, closely mirrors the growing dissatisfaction that the internet won’t operate best if it's just a few gatekeepers controlling the distribution and consumption of content including what types of ads users see. Just like the old conglomerates mentioned above, we now have a small number of distribution platforms and ad blockers that publishers and advertisers have to tap in order to survive.
While we must certainly give the Googles and Facebooks a lot of well-earned credit for their instrumental roles in the maturation of the internet, I think it is important that we as a collective ecosystem acknowledge the importance of a wide multitude of content creators/distributors and voices to ensure that the internet maintains its wonderful diversity and complexity of thought, service and entertainment.
As the ongoing net neutrality debate illustrates, it is important that consumers have unfettered access to all web content and not just be force fed the agendas and newsfeed algorithms of the one per cent.
Remember the internet is at its fullest potential as a vibrant Long Tail. The Long Tail of digital content online has often been tarred with the brush of low-quality content. That is an unfair criticism. Speaking for the online video community, I can guarantee with great pride and confidence that there are tons of sites – obscure as they may be – that offer premium video experiences for active, devoted and engaged user bases.
We would be doing consumers a huge disservice if we allowed a few players too much control over what content gets pushed out and what types of ads users see. As publishers, we do a huge disservice to ourselves by conceding to the internet “one-percenters” as our primary sources of traffic, ad revenue and the foundation of our businesses.
A good hard look at traffic and revenue diversification is in order here. It might save us from some of the pains of dealing with these internet giants, pains summed up in industry headlines like ‘Another publisher goes after Google for unpaid adsense earnings’ and ‘Twitter starts war with emerging rival UberMedia.’
As publishers, if we want the internet to reflect our democratic values and be an engine of economic growth for everybody, we should embrace its original design of inclusive fragmentation and work together anyway we can to make it so.
Matt Brummett is chief operating officer at Answer Media