We’ve Traded Access for Power. Should We Do It Again?

The free internet is precious, and the ad industry has an important role to play in protecting it

Mark your calendar for Mediaweek, October 29-30 in New York City. We’ll unpack the biggest shifts shaping the future of media—from tv to retail media to tech—and how marketers can prep to stay ahead. Register with early-bird rates before sale ends!

The original promise of the internet was it would help tear down national boundaries, democratize the town square and offer universal access to information. But Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover brings his vision of a “free speech utopia” into sharp relief, begging the question: Is this what the internet wants and needs?

Advertisers fund, and therefore shape, much of the free internet. So as we stand on the precipice of Web3, let’s consider how our media dollars can be consciously and responsibly invested to build an internet that’s good for everyone.

Democratizing access and information

In the mid-90s, it could cost up to $12,000 to build a simple website. Today, anyone can set up a site for just a few dollars a month through Squarespace—anyone can launch an ecommerce store on Shopify, create a game within Roblox or take a course through Udemy. With just a smartphone and a SIM card, anyone in the world can descend down a Wikipedia wormhole, from the statue of Edward Colston all the way to the Bristol Stool Scale.

Thanks to investments of love, labor and significant capital, the barriers to online entry have never been lower, and the promise of universal access has been impressively fulfilled. In 2022, the internet is a theme park and everyone has a ticket to ride. Brands have also played into this space well, providing freely accessible content, such as Unilever’s helpful Cleanipedia, and creating powerful online communities like Lego Ideas and Sephora’s Beauty Insider.

The free internet is precious. And going forward, the ad industry has an important role to play in protecting it. With the introduction of freemium, paywall and paid ad-free business models, more and more of the web is being taken out of the public domain. And it leaves behind a subpar, advert-riddled internet for those who can’t afford to escape it.

To prevent this, it’s imperative advertisers avoid disruptive, interruptive and unpleasant user experiences when buying digital media. As platforms like Netflix start to explore ad-funded models, we must resist the temptation to shout the loudest. Instead, opt for contextually relevant and respectful formats bought in close collaboration with trusted publishers and creators.

The consolidation of power

The online evolution from a digital wild west to a world of plug-and-play homesteads has undoubtedly unlocked universal access.

However, it has also consolidated power and capital. We may all be invited to enjoy the theme park they built, but we won’t see any share of the profits and we certainly won’t be allowed to build a waterpark next door.

Back in the early 2000s, academics like Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu discussed how the internet could liberate us from governments, borders and even our physical selves. Back then, it was believed no one could own the internet, but today the FAAMG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google) cabal is ever-present in our online lives.

Not only does this consolidation of power create monopolies, but it also has dangerously misallocated political influence, leaving us at the whim of technology companies with all of the power but none of the accountability or responsibility. Elon Musk is pushing for an unpoliced town square, but the Russian misinformation and propaganda about Ukraine has poignantly highlighted the dangers of an internet left unchecked.

The paradox of tolerance says that in order for us to have free speech, we must also empower our democratically elected lawmakers to silence the voices that threaten our freedom. Big tech has undermined this delicate equilibrium.

The implications for Web3 and beyond are to learn from these mistakes. To start, let’s ensure that Meta, and the rest, do not monopolize the metaverse.

As advertisers enter the fray and the internet evolves from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional space, it’s important we put pressure on the platforms to make their software open to third-party developers or even consider supporting organizations, such as the nonprofit Open AR Cloud, working on establishing open-source foundations for this new frontier.

The consolidation of money

With today’s internet controlled by a few, the distribution of wealth has been stifled, with significant implications for the artists, journalists and creators who actually populate the internet with stuff worth logging on for.

FAAMG makes up nearly one-quarter of the total profit within the U.S. stock market. Advertising is a huge part of their commercial success story, with brands spending $86 billion on Meta, $147 billion on Alphabet and $20 billion on Amazon in 2020 alone.

Excitingly, platforms like Patreon and OnlyFans are starting to redefine the online relationship between creators and the public, cutting out extractive technology layers. Meanwhile, Roblox has pioneered a transparent rev-share model with their creators, paying 28 cents per dollar spent.

One of the very promising elements of Web3 is how this new infrastructure may help us to move from an ad-funded model of centralized control to rev-share models across decentralized systems.

According to Chris Dixon, a leading crypto investor, NFT sales this year will surpass all of Web2 payouts to creators. Silicon Valley VCs certainly have a vested interest in pushing pro-NFT narratives, but it’s clear blockchain platforms, such as Foundation, are offering lucrative new opportunities for creators. Not only this, but blockchain technology allows artist remuneration to be built into the token to respect ownership and usage rights.

Web3 is an opportunity to rewrite the rulebook

Today, the internet is bigger, better and more dangerous than ever before. Our online experiences are created and controlled by a small group of powerful technocrats, and 40 cents from every dollar of VC money is spent advertising on Google and Facebook. But imagine the journalistic integrity and creative brilliance that we could unleash if this money was instead distributed to creators.

Web3 shows us it’s not too late to create an open-source, decentralized version of the internet where anyone can create, compete and profit—to build an internet that’s good for everyone.