There’s no shortage of articles that lament the centralization of the internet and nostalgically recall the days when it was a decentralized network where everyone was equal (I’ve done my fair share of whining about it). There’s also no small number of articles that claim blockchain or some other technology will dethrone big tech companies and return the internet to its formal decentralized glory (I’ve written about that too).
But we’re in 2019, the blockchain revolution is nowhere in sight, and if anything, the very companies that centralized the internet are growing bigger and stronger, not weaker. I still believe there’s reason to hope the internet will be delivered from its centralized prison. But that’s a discussion for another day.
This post is not regret about the past and daydreaming about the future. It’s about the here and now. I want to share my experience and observations on how you can avoid getting sucked into the centralized internet wormhole, where losing everything you’ve built is always one step away.
What is the centralized internet and why is it so dangerous?
In general, when we talk about internet centralization, it relates to any one segment or domain in which a single company has a disproportional share of the market. Amazon has a huge chunk of the e-commerce market; Google is the leading search engine by a large margin; Facebook, despite all its woes, is still the leading social network; and no video streaming service competes with YouTube yet.
Why is this dangerous? None of those services are classified and regulated like public services such as telephone, electricity, roads and transportation. This means that for the most part, those companies have a free had to define, interpret and enforce their rules with little government intervention oversight. And a large number of the users and customers of those services are located outside of their jurisdiction and are subject to totally different rules.
But in many cases, those platforms are just as vital as public utilities and can define the success or destruction of the business and life of their users.
A recent article in The Verge shows the dangers of placing all of your business’s eggs in the Amazon basket. By gaming the algorithms that define the rules of the platform, merchants can trick Amazon to close the business accounts of their competitors on grounds of rules violations with little room recourse. In many cases, the victims of these schemes suddenly find themselves with no other channel to do business because Amazon was the only platform on which they were selling their wares.
Amazon has no legal duty to provide you with a detailed account of why it’s suspending your account. There’s no legal channel to complain to the suspension of your Amazon account. You must appeal to Amazon itself. The process is so long and frustrating that an entire line of business has been established around it. There are people whose full-time job is to help restore suspended Amazon accounts.
In other cases, users become affected by decisions directly made by the company running the service on which they’re doing business. For instance, last year, Facebook decided to change its News Feed algorithm, the part of its software that defines which posts get prioritized and shown first in the timelines of its 2 billion users. There was no legal process for the decision. It was made based on discussions with shareholders and the company leadership’s vision of what would be best for Facebook’s image (and its bottom line) in wake of its privacy fallout. The change, which prioritized posts from friends and family over news items, came to the great detriment of publications that were getting most of their traffic from Facebook.
In 2018, changes to YouTube’s monetization policies suddenly destroyed the businesses of many people who relied on the income from their YouTube channel.
Another dangerous aspect of centralized services is changes to search and recommendation algorithms. For instance, YouTube is also constantly updating its recommendation and search algorithms, which can have a dramatic impact on the number of views videos get. In one case, a YouTuber who was distraught over changes to her viewership attacked YouTube’s headquarters and injured three people before taking her own life.
Changes to the algorithms of Google’s search engine and Amazon’s product search and recommendation can be just as effective.
Again, none of these areas have clear regulations. The only prominent case is a years-long antitrust war between Google and Yelp. Yelp is not a small company, and yet it is struggling in making its case against the search giant. Smaller businesses would have an even harder time challenging one of the giants.
In the past few years, there have been discussions and reflections and regulating large tech companies such as Facebook and Google, but those efforts are mostly focused on privacy and the handling of user data. Very little is being said about how much leverage large tech companies wield over smaller businesses.
This means that it is up to you to protect your business against the perils of the centralized internet.
Why does the centralized internet exist at all?
Now the question is, if the centralized internet is so bad and everyone acknowledges it, then why does it exist in the first place? The answer is convenience. Companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook have access to billions of users through their different applications, and they provide you with a window to reach that audience with very little effort.
Moreover, the services of those companies provide quick and easy ways to set up a business. Want to do online retail? Setting up an Amazon business account and making your items discoverable to billions of users is much easier than launching your own e-commerce website. Want to make money streaming videos online? YouTube gives you easy-to-use video publishing and streaming tools and one of internet’s most powerful search engines, which is much more convenient than creating your own video streaming website. Are you a freelance programmer or writer? Signing up with Upwork only takes a few minutes and you immediately get access to thousands of job posts in your domain of expertise.
You can achieve quick results with any of these services. That’s why they’re dominating their respective industries. But the convenience of the centralized internet can easily lock you into its recesses and make you forget the pitfalls that stand in your way.
You can become too dependent on a specific service and not realize it until your account gets suspended for a minor violation of terms (or a mistake), or a change to an algorithm suddenly damages your business.
Following are some guidelines to protect yourself against the threats of the centralized internet.
Know your vulnerabilities
The most basic way to determine how vulnerable you are to the threats of the centralized internet is to evaluate your dependency on different services. Will your entire business be destroyed with a single algorithm change or the suspension of an account? If yes, then you’re in a bad situation.
For instance, if your business is only running on Amazon, you’re virtually looking down the ledge of a high cliff. If your account gets suspended for actions you or others have taken, if you’re hit with a search penalty, or if a change in algorithms reduces the visibility of your products, you might see a sudden drop in your sales.
If you’re freelancing on Upwork, sending too many proposals can suspend your account. Sometimes, Upwork might even put your account on hold when investigating a fraudulent customer. In those cases, you’ll have no other way to apply for jobs until your account is reactivated. And in case your account is permanently suspended, you’ll have to start from scratch. There are plenty of stories about people who learned the hard way that depending too much on Upwork is a recipe for disaster.
Another example that is worth examining is online publications. Say you’re running a blog or news website and you’re monetizing your website’s traffic through ads. If you’re getting most of your traffic from your website’s Facebook page or Twitter account, changes to any of those services (or again, the suspension of your account), will result in a major drop in your site’s traffic.
Diversify your business channels and reduce your dependencies
Centralization is a bane to any type of business, whether online or not. However, diversifying is easier said than done. There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe that will apply to any type of online business, but there are a few steps that will work with most types of online businesses.
The easiest way to avoid becoming too dependent on any one online service is to sign up and build profiles on alternative platforms. For instance, setting up and developing an eBay account in parallel to your Amazon account is a must. Granted, it’s considerably more difficult to run two e-commerce accounts at the same time, but you’re guaranteed to stay afloat even if one of your accounts becomes suspended.
If you’re a freelancer, don’t stick to a single platform. If you have a Upwork account, also make sure you’re running accounts on other services such as Guru, Freelancer.com and PeoplePerHour. After the account setup, the extra effort required to manage the accounts is negligible in comparison to the protection you get from centralizing your business and income into a single platform.
If you’re running a blog, distributing your efforts across Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn will help you minimize changes to algorithms on any one platform. At the same time, you must have an SEO strategy to make sure you get a steady stream of visitors from online search engines.
If you’re a vlogger on YouTube, make sure you have accounts on alternative platforms such as Vimeo and Daily Motion.
It’s easy to become convinced that a single account is all you’ll need for your business, especially when you see early progress, which is the common denominators of most centralized online business platforms. But investing in extra business channels early on will make sure you’re protected against centralization.
Diversify your communication channels
In parallel to setting up your business on various platforms, it is important to also have different communication channels to connect with your audience. This way, your customers or followers can still stay up to date with you if you lose one of your channels.
The most basic way to diversify your communication channels is to cross-promote them. Encouraging Twitter followers to also like your Facebook page and connect with you on LinkedIn and vice versa is one of the common diversification methods most businesses use. Also make sure that your profiles include links to your accounts on other platforms.
An underrated method of staying in touch with customers is setting up and maintaining mailing lists. Unfortunately, on some services, namely freelancing platforms, using alternative methods of communication is forbidden and a breach of terms of service and can result in the suspension of your account. (This is also why I hate freelancing platforms and avoid them altogether.)
As a rule of thumb, network with real people, not platforms. Make sure you know your audience, create a network of people who are essential to your business. I personally rely on LinkedIn and email to stay in touch with important people in my day-to-day business, and I value outreach through my personal contact page above everything else. But I also value my Twitter and Facebook accounts as backup communication channels.
Protect yourself against changes to search algorithms
Whether you’re selling items on Amazon, uploading videos on YouTube, or publishing posts in your blog, there’s a likely chance you’re optimizing your content for search engines. For instance, if you’re publishing C++ programming tutorials on your blog, you’ll adjust the title, subheadings and the text of your post to improve the chances that someone searching for that specific topic on Google finds your website.
While search engine optimization is a very important part of any business that relies on making online content visible to queries, your longer goal should be to establish yourself as a brand. If your customers start recognizing you by your name instead of generic keywords that describe your services, you’ll have a greater chance of remaining immune against changes to search algorithms.
Here’s an example: Say you’ve set up your own brand of men’s watches, imaginatively called CoolMensWatches, and you’re selling your items on Amazon. You should definitely start by optimizing for keywords such as “men’s watch” and “sports watch for men” and other related keywords. Those are keywords where competition is very tight and the slightest change to algorithms can have a huge impact on your presence in search results.
However, if you lead efforts to make your brand known, people will eventually start finding you by searching for your name instead of generic keywords. There’s little chance that any change to algorithms will push you off the top results of searches for “CoolMensWatches.” So make sure people know you by your name, not the type of items or services you sell. It’s like the difference between searching for “fitness tracker” and “Fitbit,” “smartphone” and ‘iPhone,” “basketball” and “Spalding.”
Granted, establishing the name of your brand is not easy. You need to make yourself known through online ads, reviews, social media campaigns, individual outreach, events, etc. But the returns on such efforts are priceless.
Value the last bastions of freedom
While everything we’ve said so far will help you minimize the threats of running a business on centralized internet platforms, none of it is undermining the power of the centralized internet. You’re still not in control of your online assets. You can lose your Facebook and Twitter accounts with all your followers in a flash. If your Amazon and YouTube accounts get suspended, any amount of brand recognition and search optimization will become useless.
Fortunately, email and the domain name system still stand as the most important decentralized bastions of today’s largely centralized internet.
If you maintain a list of email addresses of people who are interested in your videos, blog posts, product updates, etc., no one will be able to take it away from you. You can always reach out to them beyond the control of large tech companies. So, start building your mailing list as soon as you start your business. This can be as simple as a newsletter signup form embedded in your website. Sending emails to a list of people who have willingly given their addresses to you is one of the most effective methods to reach out to an interested audience. An interesting example is business analyst Ben Thompson, who has built a very successful business around his newsletter.
Second is your domain. No one will be able to take away your domain name from you. Even if a hosting service decides not to host your website anymore (which happens very rarely), you can take your site’s content to another hosting service and resolve your domain to the servers of the new company.
For many types of businesses, not having a website and mailing list would not make sense. But for other types of activities, it might be less obvious. For instance, if you’re a successful YouTube vlogger with tens of thousands of subscribers, you might easily dismiss the need for a website and mailing list. But if you have a website where you host all your videos and a mailing list with the addresses of all your subscribers, you’re guaranteed to be able to reach out to your audience even if something bad happens to your account.
Here are some closing thoughts to wrap up our guide to surviving the toxicity of the centralized internet:
- Always monitor your business’s performance for over-dependencies on any single platform
- Make sure you can communicate with your audience across all your channels
- Make your audience know you by your name, not what you do
- Above all, value your domain and mailing list; those are the only things you truly own
So while you’re waiting for our decentralized saviors to deliver us, get started today on building your defenses against the threats of centralized internet. Tomorrow might be too late.