2019 Should be the end of Big Attention

If your business or cultural strategy was based on attention at scale, the first years of the century felt great, as the leading Internet platforms offered the possibility of nearly limitless, precisely targeted traffic. Then came the troubles.

The first one is economic. If you depend on traffic from any of the dominant platforms, you're less an independent, disruptive entrepreneur than a sharecropper working on the lands of one of a handful oligopolistic landlords. As the sole large-scale suppliers of attention/traffic, big social networks are free to set rules that maximize their control and revenue with no regard to the long-term viability of individual tenants or their communities – just ask the news industry. It's not a coincidence that they are among the biggest and most profitable companies in the world.

But if social networks are in some senses pseudo-feudal lords, they lack even the (extremely) dubious commitment of their historical counterparts to providing at least some semblance of security in their territories. Online platforms weren't built around a concept of community any closer to the real thing than Apple stores are to real town squares. They are built to generate, amplify, and sustain "engagement" with as little cost as possible. An staggeringly brilliant movie review or a vicious trolling attack are, from the point of view of their systems, core processes, and metrics, indistinguishable.

This led to the second problem, the social one. Large-scale Internet platforms didn't cause the rising levels of virulent authoritarianism, racist nationalism, deliberate ignorantism, and misogyny, but they did much to facilitate their growth, in no small measure by building amplifiers without filters and then expressing surprise about being held responsible for what came out. Much of their scalability was, in fact, due to unpriced negative externalities: building a social network that even under adversarial conditions can't be used to amplify fraud, abuse, and hate is inherently hard, expensive, and difficult to scale, and companies like Facebook and Twitter just kicked down that can for as long as they could, and then some. The ongoing Tumblr meltdown, with their over-simplistic technological fix to a predictable platform hijacking problem failing in an even more predictable way, is but the fast-forward, somewhat farcical version of what every other social network is also going through.

This worldwide political development is doubtlessly the most critical problem. Unless we push back racist nationalism, misogyny, and deliberate obscurantism, few or none of our other problems will be solvable (including possibly terminal ecological ones).

Part of the solution, though, will probably come from recognizing that our cultural and economic fixation with gaining the largest possible audience, and the platforms this fixation has made so ubiquitous and profitable, is no longer tenable. Simply put, if we can't have viral success without social networks, then we better not depend on having viral success, because social networks are less scalability tools than huge vulnerability surfaces, and neither communities, institutions, nor societies can afford them any more.

This is a difficult thing to give up. The temptation and occasional reality of instantaneous attention at scale, and the riches that can come from it, are intoxicating. But the brief window in which this was feasible in a socially sustainable way, if it ever existed, is now gone. We need to go back to, rebuild, and strengthen the old Internet of millions of nodes at multiple scales, from the homepage to, yes, the huge aggregator, but no longer ceding the rules under which we interact with each other to the control of organizations unwilling or unable to do so in a responsible way.