The Vending Machine of the Future

There’s a pretty huge problem facing the Internet. I may have a way to start solving it.

On Sunday, The New York Times ran a piece discussing at length the issues currently being faced by the media industry.

“Oh no,” you might be thinking, “another article discussing the failure of print? I already know about that!”

Not exactly. This Times, (haha, see what I did there?) the focus was on the online sector, with sites like Buzzfeed and Mashable the examples used to back the thesis that questions the longevity of online news. Mashable, at the beginning of the month, announced lay offs of some high ranking editors, and Buzzfeed missed it’s 2015 revenue projection by 32%. For two behemoths, both looked to by those looking to break into the industry of online media as potential soft landing spots in an industry mired in uncertainty, this has come as distressing news. The reasons for these unfortunate signals are many, but The New York Times, in the first article linked, points to the availability of ad blockers for mobile browsers, and the potent power of Facebook with its encapulsating grasp and its strong desire to keep users on its site as opposed to following links to external content.

I’ve thought about this downtrend, as plenty of more informed others have, extensively. As the Times article points out, users of mobile devices have moved toward interactions where they are merely checking app feeds with the goal of consuming as much content as they can in as short of a time as possible. Things that can get in the way of that are advertisements and anything else like surveys or newsletter signups that a user can identify as a ploy to make them a pawn in an internet revenue game. As younger people grow, taking that awareness for ingenuity and money making business gimmicks with them into the world, it’s very difficult to imagine a world where these methods for making money can survive.

Everyone pretty much wants the Internet to work like this (and this is pretty much how it works right now): as a vending machine, where all the pretty content is displayed for you, and all you have to do is push the right buttons, and it is delivered to you, for no charge (save the monthly subscription fee to your provider).

Media sites have tried to monetize the delivery of this content, as mentioned above, with ads, surveys, email newsletters containing ads, and plenty of other means. One would think that the subscription model would work quite well, as we do like to shell money out on a monthly basis for access to unlimited content, as we do for video streaming. This hasn’t really translated, or it doesn’t seem it has, to online media, as the inputs to the conversation are so numerous, the thought is always “I can get this information somewhere else, without this $10/month charge.”

Many sites are funded by venture capitalists, looking to cash in on the “millenial media boom” as termed in the above-linked Vanity Fair article, and I thought this could translate to the public when I suggested that Gawker conduct a crowd funding campaign, like a Kickstarter, to pay off the Hulk Hogan verdict. To some degree, I think, people will spend their own money when it seems “cool” and “beneficial” to the world as a whole. If marketed properly, perhaps there is some viability to this solution of raising funds for a media site, but that isn’t the solution I am proposing here today.

To remedy this situation, one must keep the vending machine analogy in mind, and think about how selfish it is to be constantly standing in front of it, pushing button combination after button combination getting fat on the acquisition of information we partake in every single day of our lives. There are actual, live human beings on the other side, filling that machine with content every single day. They are just like us, with bills to pay and goals to meet, perhaps even with a family to feed. Perhaps the mean we use to get to the vending machine, our technology, has led us to be deluded into thinking the Internet is some magical creature stocking that machine full of content for us to digest, but that isn’t the case. (at least not yet? *Gulp*)

The Internet is a special place for all it gives us, like the access to thoughts from all over the world, the connectivity to our family and friends, and the place for our own voice, just like this site, when we ourselves want to be seen and heard. It would be amazing for that continue forever, unobstructed and untainted by corporate interests and greed, but sometimes you have to be realistic, and really think if that will be allowed to continue to be the case. by those in higher power like the service providers and the companies holding controlling stakes in some of the suffering media sources.

The solution I think would really work is some kind of credit or token system, a consummable form of currency that would be used up when one wants to read an article or gain access to a certain piece of content. I’ve heard about a “pay per view” kind of system, where a user’s credit card would charged a small fee for access to an article, and some sites have even started charging a small fee to recoup ad revenue lost to ad blockers, but rhe token system would be different for one main reason: it would be tied to your monthly service provider bill. For instance, let’s say $50/month gets you your regular high speed Internet, but now it also grants you 100 credits to be used on the “Internet vending machine” whenever and wherever you please. A 2,000 word article or less with video costs you 2 tokens. A hour long documentary costs you 5. A Buzzfeed listicle costs 1 token. A Mashable video review of a new tech gadget deducts 3 tokens. Need more tokens? Take it up with your provider as you would with a higher data plan with your wireless carrier.

Now this idea would be largely, actually hugely, dependent on the ability of the stakeholders involved to figure out a way for content providers to get paid from service providers based on tokens used on the site in question. It’s eerily possible to imagine a world where certain ISPs have deals where things like “no token access to Netflix for your first year!” and “half token cost to The Verge for your first six months!” exist. There is also the question of moving sites like Netflix, already super profitable based on its subscription fees, to this model. Perhaps video streaming is on too solid of ground to be messed with. I think we can all be ok with that.

Of course, corporations would make out nicely here, and frankly this kind of world is slightly scary, but hopefully this would lead to a stronger and more stable job market for content creators, and less layoffs in an extremely important industry.

A big retort to my argument is going to be that it fattens up already massive corporations like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner, giving them more power over what you can gain access to. Yes, I admit that there could be some serious moral issues here, like letting your provider know of the content you are consuming. However, why not remedy that by treating the privacy of content viewed as sacred as your Social Security number and home address, infinitely more sensitive information that your provider already has? In doing so, an end user can experience the Internet in peace, and the provider merely makes its money and shuts up.

This just a thought, but could be a potential solution to the declining health of media. Maybe this has been discussed at length in board rooms somewhere, in which case this writing will be a preview, rather than a solution. Whatever the case may be, let’s hope for a route that continues to provide valuable content and journalism, that doesn’t come with such selfishness on the part of the consumer.

I would welcome your discussion with me on this, whether here in the comments or on Twitter: Peter Sarian. Thank you for reading.

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