October 25, 1994 was the day that hotwired.com rolled out the world’s first banner ad and birthed the field that we now call “monetization”. From banners to adsense, from freemium sites to affiliate sales, it often feels like the past 17 years have been a (moderately successful) search for ways to actually make money off the Internet.
Search for “online monetize” and you find no fewer than 4,640,000 results.
The results begin with a question: “How do you earn money online?” From there we get a whirlwind tour of the options, covering not only the banner ads (from which we started) but also such gems as how to monetize your WordPress RSS feed, your forum, your Facebook fanpage or even your betting portal (in case getting people to give you their money on a longshot bet isn’t monetization enough!)
Usually I find the extent of human creativity encouraging, but in this case I felt a little wistful that so many hours of blogging had been devoted to variations on a not-especially-enlightening theme. How would enlightenment itself fare in comparison, I wondered? I turned to Google for the answer:
That’s right: search for “enlighten online” and you’ll find 4,640,000 results: exactly the same number as you get for “monetize online”. If you look at Google as our contemporary equivalent to the Oracle at Delphi, you’ve got to read something into this.
My reading of the Oracle is that it’s trying to tell us that we’re facing a choice between exploiting the Internet’s potential to generate revenue, and its potential to help human beings become better versions of themselves. Don’t get me wrong: I can’t believe in an Oracle that denies a blogger the vintage wall organizer she buys with her adsense revenue.
But I’d love to live in a world where we had vintage organizers on the walls, and love in our hearts. Yet we consistently invest more in the financial returns of Internet use than in its personal, social or spiritual benefits. The attention that goes into the question of how to monetize online isn’t parallel to our interest in how to enlighten online: in truth, it’s much greater. The 4,640,000 results for online monetization really are about how to make money from the Internet; the 4,640,000 results for online enlightenment are about how to get enlightened…and just happen to be online.
That disparity need not lead to the conclusion that enlightenment can only happen when your laptop is closed and your Blackberry is holstered. Perhaps enlightenment in the Buddhist sense can only come from switching off; but there are certainly lots of ways that our time online can make us wiser, more compassionate, and even more present. For those of us who aren’t prepared to switch off — indeed, for those who find themselves more and more online — the question of how to turn the Internet into an enlightenment engine is the question.
I’m encouraged by signs that the answer is already emerging. We’re using the Internet to have conversations with and about people who are vulnerable and in pain — people who may be virtually invisible offline. We’re moving beyond social networks that encourage us to accumulate connections like notches on a bedpost, and starting to use networks that help us focus on the people we love most. We’re using the Internet to get support from others so that we can be alone with ourselves.
These experiments in fostering meaning and connection online go back as far as our experiments with banner ads. Yet our narrative about the Internet has unfolded as a narrative about how to use it to make money, build brand, get ahead. That’s a necessary part of building a sustainable Internet, but it’s only one part. The other part — the part we’ve been neglecting — is the story about how we can and will use the Internet to transform our lives and our world.
We’ve had 17 years to explore monetization. Let’s see what we can do with 17 years of exploring online enlightenment.