During the recent Academy Awards broadcast, Samsung aired a commercial for its new phone. Casey Neistat, a YouTube and HBO reality personality, narrates over a montage of young people engaged in feats of derring-do and uninhibited expressions of creativity. He declares that we are the true makers and maestros, and finishes with this zinger: “When we are told that we can’t, we all have the same answer - watch me!” And, there it is. The glorification of our selfie culture.
Apparently, all you need to get people to watch you is a non-exploding phone, astonishing talent, bushels of cash and an insane amount of luck. Then you, too, can be adored for ninety seconds, the average time a person spends watching an online video.
Sure, I love the fact that people are creating and sharing those creations. But I don’t believe for a moment that the web is truly as accessible and democratic as many would have us believe.
You see, the web is no longer the free and open space it was a decade ago. It’s now a feudal system run by a handful of ultra-large and ultra-sophisticated monarchs. The rest of us are just serfs handing over a percentage of our crop to the lords and ladies who have the power to grant us access to the digital world of meaningful commerce. Our chances of actually becoming web royalty are about the same as retiring from that scratch-off lottery ticket.
Consider this: Google companies get over 50 billion visits each month. There are only 7.5 billion people on this planet, and only about a third of them have regular internet access. That means that every person with internet access visits Google almost every day. The search engine decides what you will find, because these visits aren’t free. Some company has sponsored your trip on the web and expects the search engine to deliver you to them.
Right now, the net is in a consolidation phase. A few big players are gobbling up niche providers and creating enormous storefronts and networks. Sure, there's still infinite variety on the web, but good luck finding it. Look at the retail sector, where 55% of all searches for online products start with Amazon, which also accounts for over half of all the retail growth on the web. The numbers for Facebook, Netflix and Wikipedia are similar for their own domains. The same thing happened to television in the 1950s when hundreds of local broadcasters were forced into three networks by the economics of scale.
But surely there’s still room for your little entrepreneurial dream, noble cause or heroic work of art. So you pay your web domain, the development of your site and the fee to your internet service provider to keep things running. Still, that won’t get you much traffic unless you have more friends than Kim Kardashian. You spring for a consultant to concoct a magic algorithm to put you atop the search list, and perhaps you even go for some banner ads hoping they don’t accidently pop up in the middle of some troll’s little hate-fest. You keep this up in perpetuity because it’s the price you have to pay to belong to the digital world.
You now realize that the web has become a glorified phone book. We can’t watch you because we can’t find you. Regrettably, those that are most adept at finding us are commercially or ideologically motivated. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m posting this to a web site where, as you know, everything you read is true.
Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.
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