Farhad Manjoo from the New York Times is struggling with a core issue of our time: What’s going wrong on “the internet”? He chronicles the rise of fake news, click-bait, and outright abuse. He tracks those efforts back to malicious actors (both foreign and domestic) with ill intent. He calls out the so-called platform companies for being late to the party when it comes to policing such content the way traditional media companies did in the past. But he saves his harshest criticism for the advertising industry. In Manjoo’s view, it is the advertising model that is at the root of the problem – the profit motive, specifically, unrestrained by editorial oversight.
Advertising is simply the business model. When organizations decided – early on – that they would not charge money for their services or content (information yearns to be free, remember?), they were left in a pickle. Once venture capital dried up, who would pay the bill? Well, Google figured it out…for all its variety of offerings and business, Google makes the lion’s share of its money from advertising. So does Facebook. So does Twitter.
No, the issue isn’t advertising. It is dehumanization. In the rush to exploit the open territory of the internet, we’ve lost our connection with the human beings on the other side of the transaction. That’s not surprising: In no other media is the audience so nameless, faceless, or transitory. And it goes both ways: That anonymity allows the average person the freedom to indulge their worst impulses without the fear of social consequences. (Read a comment board lately?)
Is the answer a new business model? Traditional media organizations (such as the New York Times) have made strides here, but I don’t think that alone will work. The horse has left the barn, and getting him to walk back in on his own volition is unlikely. No, what’s needed is a reexamination of our culture – how we treat each other, how we value opinions, and how we hold ourselves accountable. We had our fun over the past 20 years, but now it’s time to grow up and put some bounds on this.
But that’s not to say we let marketing and advertising off the hook. That “rehumanization” needs to happen, and it’s up to all of us in the field to take it seriously. Personally, I take it so seriously that I devoted two years of my life to exploring that issue and writing a book on the subject. In the end, however, the basics are easy: Take care of yourself – all empathy comes from within. Treat others as you want to be treated (or don’t treat others how you wouldn’t). And finally, remember that we’re all in this together.
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Read Manjoo’s article. I agree with most of it, just not the conclusion.