The Web's Failure as an Information Platform

The once Information Superhighway has become jammed with ads and lies.

The web as an “Inforamation Surperhighway” (a term generally attributed to Al Gore) was a common phrase twenty-five or so years ago. Back then the web was a nascent application platform, incapable of truly competing with desktop applications, but was a burgeoning information platform - democratizing access to information in a way no other platform could.

Twenty-five years later and we rarely mention the “Information Superhighway.” We tend to focus more on the web as an application platform. There’s no doubt that, while the experience can sometimes be less than optimal (especially on mobile), we’ve made great strides towards making the browser a fully functional application platform.

Unfortunately, as an information platform, today’s web is being destroyed by lousy, obtrusive and disproportionate ads (see Walt Mossberg’s great post from today) on the one end and by misinformation on the other (the so-called “fake news” problem and the social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that promote its spread).

As Mr. Mossberg notes in his article (and I’ve discussed plenty before), there’s little viable business model currently in producing quality content. Good content takes time, effort and money. Advertising networks on the web are not truly designed to reward the quality of the content but rather the number of clicks. By that measure, fast and cheap content that brings in lots of clicks is just good business - and, thus, fake news is simply all about income.

Even as the future of subscription-based sites like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal seem to be improving (even if not to the degree of their print heyday), this isn’t a viable plan for new outlets. These are long established brand names with huge existing audiences, and even they struggled to find their way in this environment. What chance does anyone else have?

Ev Williams has vowed to find a different model. I have my doubts about his ability to do that. When you have a hugely popular site that runs on free content and still can’t make money off it…?

I’m also dubious that there will come a day when we are all willing to pay for content on the web. As illustrated by a recent study, We’re more than content consuming fake news that confirms our biases, regardless of its relationship to the truth.

My only thought is that perhaps there are enough of us who care about quality content that we can contribute to some form of organization that can offer grants for creating quality content. Sort of like a Kickstarter for quality content. Rather than individually subscribing, we would donate to this non-profit that would, like many non-profits do, dole out grants for individuals or organizations who create content (chosen by some sort of voting or board or something) and who thereby agree to abide by some sort of ground rules regarding advertising (not no ads, just non-disruptive ads).

But the skeptic in me thinks that even that sounds like an unrealistic fairy tale.