Every time you click a link, you pass through another door of the Borgesian library…
Imagine the internet as a nearly infinite, Borgesian library. Each article, widget, slide, game level and landing page forms a room in the library. Every time you use a link to go to a new page, you pass through a door.
At first, if you want to make money, you sell whatever is in the room. Maybe it’s excellent journalism. Maybe it’s a game or a recipe. Maybe it’s an item that will get shipped to someone’s house. In this model, the internet offers a straightforward transactional experience in digital space.
Over time, instead of making money from whatever is in each room, companies begin to monetise the doors. They equip them with sensors. Each time you go through one, someone gets paid. Immediately, some people will start adding a lot of new doors. Other people will build rooms that are largely empty, but that function as waystations, designed to get as many people as possible to enter and leave.
When you open an article on, say, Slate.com, you enter an article room. Slate makes money because it sells a certain number of metered doors in each of these digital spaces. We call these doors ‘advertisements’. This architecture creates a rather strange effect, because while the ostensible goal of Slate is to get people into its rooms to read fine journalism, it actually gets paid by attracting people and then quickly sending them out – either to an advertiser’s website, or to another article.
And, in fact, this is how Slate functions. In a viral piece it published in 2013, the tech writer Farhad Manjoo partnered with Chartbeat to track how long Slate readers actually stayed on a given article. They found that 38 per cent opened the article and didn’t read it at all. Of those who began reading, fewer than 25 per cent made it to the end, and 5 per cent seemingly looked at the headline and then left. Manjoo locates this twitchiness in some vague cultural moment, suggesting that ‘we live in the age of skimming’. But this pattern shouldn’t surprise us. It’s simply a profit model working as designed.
At some point, you no longer make money by building excellent rooms. You make money by figuring out how to get people to pass through as many doors as possible – to have them scanning across the web, that scrolling hallway of doors, in a state of constant motion, click-click-clicking away.
Images by Victoria Pickering.