How to Save the Internet: Op-ed from Curiosity's Gabe Vehovsky

It’s a sobering statistic that speaks volumes about technology’s impact on the human race – U.S. adults are spending nearly 6hrs daily with digital media, a figure that is only going to increase over time. Stop for a moment to think about how many things you do in front of a small glowing screen on a daily basis.

For most of us, it’s the first thing we do when we wake up and the last thing we do before we close our eyes. In many ways, digital media is allowing us to live out the promise of democratized access to information, education, entertainment, etc. – all at our fingertips and all on-demand.

That all seems like good news, but as is usually the case, there’s a catch. For many, there’s a sense of malaise associated with being online for hours a day; people are growing tired of the grind associated with flipping through an endless stream of virtual experiences. This digital fatigue among consumers has many causes, whether it's fake news, Facebook Live tragedies, online bullying or simply that tone deaf Facebook friend who you despise seeing in your newsfeed. It’s the perfect storm of discontent and anyone that depends on digital engagement to grow their business needs to stat tracking this escalating trend.

We get tremendous value from digital media, so how could we possibly grow tired of it? While there are undoubtedly many possible reasons, some of which were previously noted, there’s one I haven’t mentioned yet. The state of online advertising certainly can’t be helping encourage online engagement. Continually having to wade through, around and across streams of intrusive ads is incredibly frustrating. Even if the barrage of digital ads are relevant in some form or fashion, having them placed between a consumer and their intended experience almost always results in frustration. It’s 2017, isn’t there a better way for brands to become part of the digital experience without laying virtual speed bumps in our path?

Having spent my career in digital media, I’m empathetic to publishers. Anyone in the business of delighting consumers with digital experiences hates the thought of intrusive ads as much as end users do. That’s largely why you see so many premium players moving towards subscription based, ad free models (Netflix, Spotify, WSJ, etc.). To appreciate the state of affairs, consider this. To win in today’s digital media world, either you aggressively play the intrusive ad game at the detriment of your user experience, or, you eliminate ads all together and charge users a subscription. Tough choice, right?

Why can’t there be some form of middle ground? I have an idea that may offer a third option that favors both publisher and consumer. Digital media advertising is almost exclusively predicated on quantity. As a digital media platform or publisher, the more times you can intrude upon consumer experiences with ad placements, the more money you stand to earn. So to earn more money and be able to create more and better content, you ultimately get sucked into the temptation of pushing the envelope to do more ads, longer ads, ads with auto play, bigger ads that push down and take over your whole screen, etc. And with each step, you’re breeding the very digital fatigue that threatens the entire industry.

For this ideology to change, brands themselves, and more specifically, the people at brands who are responsible for digital budgets, should be pushing publishers to find better and more creative ways to engage consumers across digital experiences. And for that to be possible, there will have to be some compromise on quantity expectations to allow for better quality to truly flourish.

Imagine free digital media experiences where you come across brand messages only when you’ve opted into them? I know, I know…sounds idealistic. But it’s more believable if you’re open to expanding the definition of what “brand messages” are. Experience has taught us that brand messages are typically highly manufactured, often canned lines of copy that have been scrubbed over by marketers, copywriters and lawyers. In a marketing world where “authenticity” is what everyone is talking about, it’s ironic to think most brand messages are so painfully inauthentic.

The best brands have so many exceptional stories to tell. There are countless ways their messages to consumers could be truly engaging and even informative. Stories about things like their expertise, innovation, people or heritage. Stories that inspire consumers to understand and appr