How the Ratings & Attention Economy Corrupts Everything
Here is one simple fact that you never hear about in the media: if you have a million people watching a show with a well-researched piece of investigative journalism, and a million people watching a show with totally made up conspiracy theories, both shows could be making about the same amount of money from advertising.
There is a famous saying that goes like this:
“You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”
Now this phrase used to mean that lying and deceit is terribly shortsighted and should be avoided, since eventually you’d get exposed. These days however, “you can fool some of the people all the time” became the business model for too many people. They think that fooling some people all the time is a great and consistent source of income!
And that’s the problem with the current ratings-based business model for content — it doesn’t matter if the content is truthful or accurate, as long as people watch it. As long as the show has ratings, it will make money from advertising.
But what is easier to produce? What takes less money, effort and time? You need to spend a lot of money to produce a show with well-researched, fact-based content — with the same money you can probably produce a hundred shows with totally made up garbage that just sounds real.
Not only that, but producing garbage is clearly the more profitable path! The math here is very straight forward: if you produce a 100 shows with made up claims — instead of one well-researched, fact-based show — and each of these shows gets the same rating as the one high quality show, then you’d be making a lot more money! So as long as you can “fool some of the people all the time” you’d be very successful.
And that is the problem with media and the internet today. Since ratings are the only thing that matters — since that’s how you make money — the current business model rewards lies and deceit, and penalizes hard work and honesty.
This is true not just at the very extreme cases of obvious charlatans who are out there to make money by spreading conspiracy theories and lies. It’s true even for people who are trying to make honest living in media.
Think of the reporters, authors and other content creators who sometimes don’t really have something of value to say but still need to meet a deadline for a publication, fill a quota of text, or provide another headline for an online magazine. Since the only thing that matters is ratings and clicks, it pays to cut corners. It pays to regurgitate unsubstantiated opinions. It pays to write poorly-researched articles, or make predictions without much care or knowledge of the subject. That’s just how the current ratings-based business model works.
So if for every piece of well-researched, high quality content in the media and on the internet you have 2, 5, 10 or a 100 pieces of made up or low quality content, it’s easy to see why the ratings-based business model is totally broken!
You simply cannot expect reasonable people to have to dig through piles of garbage to get to a bit of truth. Is there any wonder than that we have a Crisis of Trust in the media?
If we want to restore trust in the media, and don’t want to dig through piles of misinformation and low quality content to get to the facts, we need to change the ratings-based business model for content to a business model that is based on high quality reliable content.