Christian Heilmann

Superbowl, celebrities, our arrogance and the moneymaking web

Friday, February 3rd, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Here’s a prediction: this weekend, Twitter will go down. I have a lot of friends in Twitter and I am very much trusting their abilities (which I know to be awesome) but there will be a fail whale. I am so convinced about this that if there is no outage and next time I am in the valley I am happy to take them out for dinner and cover the cost.

The reason that Twitter will go down is the thing that kept the all media going for the last few weeks already: the super bowl.

Everybody and their dog (and bots and automated news update feed things) will hammer Twitter giving their remarks, offering blow-by-blow commentary and flood the system. About something that I can safely say I could not care less about.

People get incredibly excited about the bowl. It is probably the most watched bit on the TV. The ad spots are so expensive that advertising creatives bend over backwards to make an impression. This almost makes them an art form and people on Twitter got very into the Ferris Bueller themed one coming this year and shared trailers(!) of the ads coming up.

It is commercialism and media sponsorship at its most blunt and obvious. I am not a fan of spectator sports as a whole and the concept of putting long breaks in a game to be able to show ads in the broadcast is confusing to me. Yes, I am a geek and a dreamer who wants this world to applaud and support achievements without the hype. But this is not the world we live in.

What makes money on the web?

It makes me think about who pays our bills and where the money on the web is. We all stare doe-eyed at the big numbers that technical startup XYZ got acquired for and we hear all the amazing stories of technical talent being poached for thousands of dollars and making millions in shares afterwards. What we forget to think about is the constant flow of dollars on the web that actually go to people who do nothing to the media when it comes to moving it forward. Instead they reap the rewards of a distributed system that makes it dead easy to publish and get people to look at your things – if you give them what they want.

I know people who make thousands a week with web sites that turn my stomach and show “funny pictures and videos” I had in my inbox in 1998. I’ve seen people sell open source templates for WordPress other people did by adding a flashy site and video tutorials around them. I’ve seen people who run blogs linking to pirated materials hosted on Megaupload and Filesonic make a lot of money with that.

We could say these are the bottom-feeders of our world. Or we could admit that their success is much easier to explain to people who do not care about the web than ours will ever be. And we could admit that they are actually very clever by playing a system to their advantage – something we always claim to be doing by using “best practices” and “embracing change”.

Who is most successful in social media?

We pride ourselves of the followers and networks we have on Twitter, but if you look at the people who really have the impressive follower numbers it is not the thinkers, the makers and the drivers of the web and social media. It is the celebrities that people hope to be able to reach directly when they follow them, it is the people with the money to invest in companies and those who big themselves up enough to become celebrities in their own worlds. Or those who simply buy followers (using mechanical turk or other systems) and thus increasing their numbers by proxy (“hey, someone with that many followers must have something cool to say!”).

We are not in control

We think as technical people that we run and forge the web but in essence we are the plumbers. We keep the system going and we are lucky to be listened to from time to time when people do stand knee-deep in, well, you know.

And this makes us go back to our comfort zones over and over again. Instead of trying to change the blatant sell-out web that makes a lot of money and try to get the cash-flow to projects that use the web in a more human fashion (giving those who have no voice a channel to speak, showing the content that gets censored on mainstream media, rejuvenate education and innovate healthcare and solve social problems) we love to argue about minutiae of our job or spout strong words of people needing to upgrade and care more about what we do or they will fall behind.

You know what, they will not, and they do not care. It is up to us to bring our passion, our drive, our care for details to the outside world and show how they can benefit from the things we do. We are in a very comfortable environment. Nobody in IT has problems paying their rent or finding food for tomorrow. We are privileged as we are currently experts people look for. In many cases not because of our ideas and who we are, but because we are the people who can build interfaces that the fans of the superbowl can use. If the creation of those interfaces will be automated, we will have to re-think and re-negotiate our standing. Being an expert as nobody understands what you do is much less sustainable than we think it is.

Knowing our enemies

I think that if we want to fight things like SOPA, ACTA, PIPA and all the other threats to the web as we know it, it is time to take our analytical skills and look at the world outside of our own. See what the big click targets of the web are doing and how we could use that to our advantage. Talk to the people we think our enemies and “outdated”. See how they click and find a way to put our foot in the door. We are not the suave sales people execs of old-school media (who run the world) listen to – we are the crazy-haired socially awkward scientists who are allowed to show their achievements from time to time.

We pride ourselves in saying we care about our end users and want to deliver the best we can for them. Well, let’s face facts that the people who we work for are not us, but might be those who care much more about what the mainstream media advertises them than the great ideals we have.

Hearing the politicians who were to decide about SOPA repeatedly say that they are not “nerds” and don’t understand the internet hurt me. I thought that after over a decade working as a web developer we are further down the line. We don’t seem to be, and this is partly because we are too arrogant to try to understand and reach the people the oldschool media obviously does reach.

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