From Google and Facebook to WeChat, Douyin and Kuaishou, Chinese and American mainstream search engines, service platforms and apps on the Internet are free of charge. Users can make use of these tools to acquire information and publish their own content on the Internet. Unlike in traditional societies, where capital is mostly necessary to gain profit through commodity production and trade, all it takes in the Internet society to start a business is to gain immense popularity of the content one creates online. As such, the common man is unrestricted by start-up capital. When he has garnered enough attention, his business can hit the ground running.
We need only look at seven-year-old Ryan Kaji, who earned US$22 million (180 million RMB) in 2018 alone just from sharing toy videos and selling toys on YouTube. Such development has given numerous hardworking, ordinary folks greater opportunity to work their way up from rags to riches. In China and the US — both of which have highly developed Internet sectors — there is a high level of upward social mobility. We can get a sense of this just by skimming any list of the wealthiest individuals or the most outstanding entrepreneurs who have made it through internet business from these two countries. All in all, to average Joes, the Internet has been seen as the greatest gift of this epoch.
No free lunch
The free Internet infrastructure, however, does not run on air. The leading search engine Google, for example, needs to constantly trawl through web pages to add to its list of known pages in a process called crawling. Its headquarters house close to a million servers, which provide search users around the globe with its services. Giant companies like Google are not charities. In fact, they are the most profitable corporations in the whole world. ByteDance, the owner of Douyin, the video app upstart we are so familiar with, is a case in point. Its annual revenue is about 100 to 120 billion RMB.
Internet platforms make profits through precision advertising. Even though the information platforms are free for everyone to use, the costs are actually fully borne by some of the users — consumers who are attracted by advertisements (ads) on these platforms.
...those who gain high-value information and commercial attention through the information platforms at almost zero cost, and those who bear all the costs of running these platforms are actually two sharply different groups of people.
In China’s Internet industry, nearly half of the ads are put out by game companies. The modus operandi is to first attract users into gaming, then make their profit from the users’ game consumption. The other half of the ads mostly revolve around e-commerce. On platforms for short videos, for instance, sellers of high margin products — of which cosmetic and beauty products are representative — are the greatest contributors on the e-commerce front.
Ironically, those who gain high-value information and commercial attention through the information platforms at almost zero cost, and those who bear all the costs of running these platforms are actually two sharply different groups of people.
The former are likely to be individuals who exercise strong self-control online and are capable of searching for information without succumbing to the interference of ads, while the latter are likely those who are weaker in that aspect and are lured away by entertainment information after only a very short way into their Internet search.
A few of my friends in the Internet industry have conducted experiments regarding one’s susceptibility to the lure of online ads. One experiment was designed to ascertain the correlation between respondents’ will power not to be distracted by internet ads and their university background.
...the firmly self controlled will make use of various information platforms effectively to acquire resources... the ill-disciplined who fail to utilise the same platforms effectively, will be trapped by the entertainment information and other distractions offered, and find themselves being led around by brainwashing advertisements.
Over several days of internship, interns from different schools and areas of specialisation were tasked with using company computers to search for information online. The interns’ powers of self-control were then evaluated through an analysis of their Internet usage. The results of such experiments turned out to be consistent with the stratification of China’s current education system. Amongst top students from prestigious institutions, there tended to be a higher proportion of participants who managed to stay focused. They were the ones who made good use of Internet tools to find the targeted pieces of information. In contrast, a very large proportion of the students from less well-known universities exhibited difficulties restraining themselves. In their searches, they moved towards advertisements or entertainment information quite quickly.
A new social divide
It is clear that self-control – especially the discipline to focus one’s own attention – is vital in the Internet society. From one’s student years and onward through the rest of one’s life, it will be an important means of separating the chaff from the wheat in society. In this age of online connectivity, the firmly self-controlled will make use of various information platforms effectively to acquire resources, thereby achieving self-elevation again and again, improving their wealth and social status in the process.
In contrast, the ill-disciplined who fail to utilise the same platforms effectively, will be trapped by the entertainment information and other distractions offered, and find themselves being led around by brainwashing advertisements. In effect, they would be constantly paying for the maintenance of the online platforms that the strong use for free.
In the Information Age, as far as the various online platforms are concerned, the nature of free usage is really about the lifelong financial subsidisation of the strong by the weak. Beneath the glossy veneer of facilitating the upward social movement of so many average Joes, the Internet Age is also accelerating a social divide between the weak-willed who succumb to online advertising easily and the strong who can rise above lowly distractions.
Internetisation of life
As the information industry continues to develop at breakneck speed, the subsidisation of the strong by the weak is in a cycle of self-reinforcement. The first thing to note is that, as our lives grow more comprehensively plugged into the Web, people with poor self-control will find themselves within the strike zone of online distractions at all times.
Given that cyberspace offers a level of efficiency and convenience that is unmatched by physical space, a growing trend for the foreseeable future will be the Internetisation of all industries to varying degrees. While the mobile web has already made us quite inseparable from the Internet, the Internet of Things in the 5G era will only take us further into a deep integration with the Web. In the future, if a person lacks self-control and becomes addicted to all sorts of online games, the problem of being manipulated by consumerist soft selling and hard selling will only deepen with the increasingly ubiquitous Web. Many young people in China have already been extensively manipulated by consumerism and consequently become debt-laden for the long term.
In fact, one’s susceptibility to the lure of online ads is closely related to age. For those born in the 1970s and 80s, the Internet was something that appeared after they became working adults. They developed their powers of attention and self-control in still traditional societies that had relatively less informational distractions. For those born in the 2000s, however, since as early as their elementary school days, it was the norm for them to play with smartphones, which have highly intensive concentrations of stimuli in the form of games and entertainment information. On average, a short video between 30 seconds and one minute in length suffices to constitute a complete piece of entertainment, designed to release entertaining stimuli to consumers within that short time. For the mobile phone games that are currently so popular with users, a complete round can usually be played within 15 minutes.
As a result, children who lack good upbringing and family attention may have an extremely short attention span whenever there is no stimulation from entertainment information. This level of attentiveness is simply insufficient for the learning of any deep knowledge. Many Internet industry players discover this when they conduct relevant tests: those who have poor self-control fail to acquire knowledge effectively online, largely because they cannot endure information acquisition devoid of entertaining stimuli for over 10 minutes. The sooner in life one becomes fixed in this state, the more irreversible it becomes. Someone whose inattentiveness has already become a serious problem in his teens can almost never engage in deep learning online throughout the rest of his life. He will only lag further and further behind in the race.
The disadvantaged child
One’s upbringing is even more pertinent when I recall a view an American senior member of the digerati once shared with me: “In both China and the US, the Internet is influencing society much faster than most of the social institutions are responding to the influence. This is especially true for foundational education.”
In the experiment mentioned earlier about interns performing online searches, some of the students from less well-known universities did considerably well too. They shared something in common — they had never been spoilt by their families as children. If a small child often has his parents scrambling after him at mealtimes to feed him food, and he is allowed to do whatever he wants, the eventual consequence is easy to imagine. He would have no control over himself whenever something that appeals to him catches his eye. He can be contrasted against a child on whom strict demands have been placed, such that he always takes his meals properly. The latter child has to rein in his own desire for playing or watching TV during mealtimes, or he would go hungry. The disparity in upbringing can be so significant in Internet society such that it traps a child within the orbit of the socially disadvantaged right from the beginning.
In traditional industrial societies, it is very difficult for a child with poor physical development or a lack of basic cultural knowledge to become a qualified industrial worker. For this reason, many early industrial countries in the West implemented juvenile nutrition subsidy and education subsidy policies for less well-off families. Most of these measures have continued to this day, helping to nurture a large population of the middle class. In the Information Age of today, should we not popularise amongst less well-off families some general knowledge of personal education as befits this era, just like how we used to push for the spread of literacy? Should we not adjust our juvenile education, purposefully introducing copious training to boost our children’s self-control, mental focus and other competencies? Such matters ought to receive society’s attention.