What does ecommerce have to do with the Jan. 6 riot? How did we go from banner ads to QAnon banners storming the Capitol steps?
I spent the last decade fighting disinformation in politics – first as a speechwriter, then as the founder of two get-out-the-vote startups meant to get people off their newsfeeds and talking to each other. We helped volunteers contact 10 million voters, but we were treating the symptoms, not the cause of our toxic media environment.
For good and bad, the internet runs on ads– it’s how sites turn users’ attention into money so we can enjoy "free" services. Predictably, those services optimize themselves to maximize our attention.
Unfortunately, algorithmic newsfeeds maximize user engagement by prioritizing controversy and outrage. A conspiracy theory post with 7000 people arguing in the comments generates more views for the ads next to it.
People are trying to fix this– Brave Browser asks advertisers to pay users a few cents per day for their attention. Apple’s iOS changes protect users’ privacy, but force retailers to buy even more ads and pass the cost to consumers. GDPR and CCPA give us control over our data in theory, but they’re hard for non-technical users to take advantage of.
The attention economy won’t improve meaningfully until someone invents a better business model. The key lies in recognizing consumers’ economic potential as active partners, not just “eyeballs with wallets”.
This happens on a small scale with peer-to-peer referral marketing. Your social connections and endorsements are worth a lot more to businesses than the 300 milliseconds you spend scrolling past a TikTok ad. But right now there’s no way to match the right person, with the right product, with the right business to pay us individually – not on a big enough scale to matter.
Instead brands pay “influencers” to aggregate reputation and sell diluted endorsements in bulk. It’s great if you’re Instagram-famous, but it still doesn’t help the typical consumer.
For the rest of us, it’s possible (with perfect information) to match a consumer’s shopping needs with a trusted friend’s recommendation, and have the business reward that successful referral.
Aligning all those pieces takes lots of data and analysis, but it’s doable. We anticipate users will want to share their data if we use it transparently to make them money and provide personalized recommendations from their friends. Imagine if Facebook were a co-op run like REI – Facebook would pay you a monthly subscription for the value you created.
An inflection point is coming where businesses’ return on investment from peer-to-peer referrals exceeds the ROI from digital ads. When that happens the internet will shift from an attention economy optimized for exposure to an influence economy optimized for trust.