It’s hard to overstate how liberating the early years of internet publishing were. After a century of publishing driven by the needs of an audience, we could finally switch to a model driven by the interests of writers.
That meant that instead of trying to figure out what some “demographic” wanted to read about, we wrote what we wanted to read, and then waited for people who share our interests to show up and read and comment and write their own blogs and newsletters and whatnot.
When the first ad networks came along, they leaned into this model: “Here is a writer whose audience has this approximate composition and interests; if that’s a group you’re trying to reach, then here’s a rate card to show those people ads.”
Back in those days, it seemed that ad targeting would enable more niches, more “long tail” publications tailoring to the esoteric, gnarly interests of writers and readers.
But that was wrong. As behavioral ad targeting took off, and with it, social networks and recommendation algorithms, the money shifted to follow readers around on the internet. Some readers were worth more than others. Showing an ad for a contingency liability lawyer to someone with a mesothelioma diagnosis was worth a bundle, for example, but you didn’t have to write about asbestos or lung cancer to score ad revenue from that user.
Rather, if you could suck in a massive, undifferentiated audience, the ad targeting algorithms would segment them for you, matching the reader with the advertiser willing to pay the most to reach them.
We know what happened next: sensationalism, clickbait, cute animals…An explosion of broadly targeted material intended to serve as a funnel for narrowly targeted ads.