A couple of years ago, I went to a talk called “Who’s Doing This Horsesh-t to My Internet,”.
I don’t remember much of the talk (it had to do with net neutrality and DMCA takedown notices, the two main things plaguing the spread of free internet at the time), but the title has stuck with me through the years.
At the time of the talk, the internet was still relatively intact. Twitter was not trying to find out my birthday so it could “show me more relevant content”. It was too busy powering revolutions. Google was still doing interesting things, like beginning work on Project Loon, instead of forcing Google+ on everyone, including very angry YouTube users. And Alexis Ohanian was still campaigning for open internet instead of ruining the site he cofounded.
In 2012, the internet was still, to some extent, carrying on in the traditional manner it was intended to: as an easier way for humans to communicate with and learn from each other. The internet of 2015, though, seems to be completely broken. Today’s web is littered with terrible practices at both the government and commercial level that are continuously eroding its immense usefulness to humanity.
##The web in 2012 and today
In 2012, only a small community deeply involved with the development of software and network infrastructure was interested in the question of “who controls the tubes, and is it in our collective best interests?” Today, the fight for control of the internet has exploded into a huge battle involving telecoms, as well as the government. SOPA, PIPA, and the NSA have gone from mentions in tech blog posts to headlines national headlines in the New York Times.
But even in the absence of legislation that could slow down and effectively change the nature of the way we communicate, the internet industry has happily been crippling itself in the name of business models.
This way of transforming the internet is ostensibly even more dangerous than government legislation, because companies censoring content to appeal to advertisers means we are not getting the full breadth of human thought online.
Like Neil Postman noted in “Amusing Ourselves to Death,”, it’s possible that a future like Brave New World, one of endless amusement, is scarier than one of 1984, endless state control.
In 2015, a lot of content-rich companies have been buttoning up to appeal to people who hold the purse strings.
Tumblr, which used to be a visual playground of interesting and sometimes bizarre ideas, is being reorganized and censored to make room for ads, including deleting accounts without any warning. Chrome, once the fastest browser, is now monitoring user voice input. Reddit is no longer reddit. News sites like The Verge and New York Times are so jacked up on ads that loading them is degrading the experience of surfing the web. Google is only now starting to undo the endless problems that G+ has caused, and it’s not clear whether it will be for the better. For example, I tried to decouple the photos on my phone from the Google + Photos app, with limited success, in the same fit of frustration that this author experienced (NSFW language). Sites like Buzzfeed are being built explicitly to profit off clickbait, meaning our news content is no longer written to provide information but to get us to…click.
Every time I read one of these news items about how money is changing the open nature of the internet — and there have been quite a few of them over the past three years — I think to myself, “Who’s doing this to my internet? How many side effects of advertising can the internet survive?”
To mitigate the risk of sounding crotchety and paranoid, I will concede that many of these things don’t yet have a direct impact on me. They definitely won’t impact the average user who just uses Gmail to read email and headlines,Skypes with their family, and checks Facebook a couple times a day.
But eventually, the ad revenue model is going to mean we are all walled into sanitized gardens of advertiser-approved family-friendly content, and, worse, malware.
All of this is a long preamble to say that I’ve been pretty angry with SoundCloud lately.
Ever since I discovered SoundCloud, I’ve really enjoyed listening to it to find music that’s never played on the radio. It’s particularly good for amazing remixes of songs you think you’ve heard a million times, for ambient programming music, and for electronic, pop, and folk songs from artists no one has ever heard of. For example:
I’ve really loved listening to SoundCloud over the past couple years since mainstream radio sucks, for the same reasons that mainstream TV used to (needing to target the lowest common denominator so as to not upset advertisers.)
I’ve had zero problems with SoundCloud. Until I read Fred Wilson’s post last year, announcing that SoundCloud was working on monetizing through, potentially, ads. “Who’s doing this horsesh-t to my internet?” I thought, but I also thought that I would wait and see what happened because anything was possible.
SoundCloud is so good that I’m willing to pay $10 a month (much more than I’m willing to pay for Spotify, which has a good popular catalog but not the same depth of original music as SoundCloud) so I don’t have to hear ads. So, I optimistically thought they might go to a subscription model and preserve the good momentum they already had going.
As is par for the course in corporate maneuvering, nothing happened for months and months and I continued listening to SoundCloud at home, in the office, and in my car, without any interruptions. And, I continued to find joy in this random, obscure stuff that people were creating because they were on a platform where they were free to experiment with formats without record labels and ad agencies listening in.
Then, the ads started. I’ve heard an anti-smoking ad about 10 times now. Given that I’m currently not paying anything for SoundCloud, I’m ok with ads. I’m the product. But after a few weeks, they became repetitive, extremely annoying, and disruptive, and again, I wondered why SoundCloud, whose audience is made up mostly of music connoisseurs who would gladly pay for service, didn’t take into account how annoying these ads would be.
Then, over the past four weeks, at least five tracks that I used to be able to stream on my phone have been quietly disabled for phone streaming, or have been completely removed from the service. One track, which I have been listening at least 10 times a day, stopped playing all the way through on my phone. At first I thought it was a glitch, but now, having listened through 3 or 4 times, I think it’s very intentional. Another mix, which I absolutely loved, was completely removed and is now almost impossible to find online, even for purchase.
That’s it, I thought. It’s starting. And a quick Google search revealed that I was right. The ad platform is going up, and SoundCloud needs money, so it’s going to go corporate. This doesn’t only mean that it will now cost money. This means that content will disappear randomly, just like it did at Yahoo, for vague reasons only tangentially related to copyright and more related to advertisers or record labels being offended.
Creativity will be stifled as artists don’t want to work as hard on mixes that are more likely to remove. SoundCloud will turn corporate, without any sharp edges, without anything interest. The same thing that happened to Tumblr or Twitter or the entire internet.
Who’s doing this to my internet?
I panicked. I have over 100 songs saved in my favorites. I want all of them. How to get them legally and make sure the artist is compensated as I take my business from SoundCloud to the SD card on my phone? I started by trying to buy each of them separately.
SoundCloud gives artists the option to charge for a download, but the call-to-action button is pretty freeform. Sometimes it takes you to iTunes, sometimes to Amazon, sometimes it’s a free download, sometimes you can pay with a tweet. Each one is different.
I clicked on one song that I loved. It took me to Amazon, but the song wasn’t available on MP3, only on Audio CD or Vinyl.
I immediately clicked away. I would gladly buy it on MP3 for 99 cents. But not wait for 2 days for a CD to ship. I guess I’ll listen on YouTube for now, an experience also now completely ruined by ads.
Another song I loved by an artist I loved was available for sale, but on a tiny third-party music distribution site I’d never heard of, and for $1.50. $1.50 is a lot to pay for a song, even a song you love, and not enough to pay to risk giving my credit card to an unknown third party.
After these two songs, I gave up. I’ll just risk being on SoundCloud until the other songs get taken away, I guess. And then I’ll be back to searching for sites that offer the same experience in the narrowing internet.
For those looking to back up their favorites, exodus from SoundCloud will be extremely hard. Because, not only does SoundCloud want to make money, but so do the thousands of middlemen who exist solely to funnel music to consumers. Another bastion of the weird, creative, wonderful open internet: closing. Who’s doing this to my internet, and why?
##What’s the solution?
So where are we in 2015? With an internet largely controlled by Google and thousands of ad networks, one that’s slow,even on mobile, and one that provides content that advertisers want us to click through to pay them instead of truly learning something or being inspired by something creative.
There have to be other business models that free up the internet for what it was meant for: free exchange of information.
But I don’t know what they are, because apparently even subscription models don’t help. Metafilter, wonderful for finding weird and original links and discussion, seems to be doing relatively well with its subscription model, but even Matt admitted it was losing money. The New York Times (which I pay for), is making some money off its paywall, but still a lot more through digital advertising experiences, which mean it’s limited in what it can truly say.
There have to be business models that allow the creativity of sites like XKCD, Reddit, SoundCloud, and Tumblr, to flourish. There has to be a way to save the walled garden of bland banality that the internet is becoming.
Who’s doing this to my internet?
But most importantly, who will solve it?
Edited to add: Hacker News discussion here