By Matthew Hindman
The internet was supposed to fragment audiences and make media monopolies impossible. Instead, behemoths like Google and Facebook now dominate the time we spend online—and grab all the profits from the attention economy. The Internet Trap explains how this happened. This provocative and timely book sheds light on the stunning rise of the digital giants and the online struggles of nearly everyone else—and reveals what small players can do to survive in a game that is rigged against them.
Matthew Hindman shows how seemingly tiny advantages in attracting users can snowball over time. The internet has not reduced the cost of reaching audiences—it has merely shifted who pays and how. Challenging some of the most enduring myths of digital life, Hindman explains why the internet is not the postindustrial technology that has been sold to the public, how it has become mathematically impossible for grad students in a garage to beat Google, and why net neutrality alone is no guarantee of an open internet. He also explains why the challenges for local digital news outlets and other small players are worse than they appear and demonstrates what it really takes to grow a digital audience and stay alive in today’s online economy.
The Internet Trap shows why, even on the internet, there is still no such thing as a free audience.
Gerald R. Faulhaber on Journal of Economic Literature wrote:
"How did online audiences and digital revenue get so concentrated? Is online oligopoly inevitable or is there a way out of the “internet trap”? These are the questions Matthew Hindman sets out to answer in his new book The Internet Trap: How the Digital Economy Builds Monopolies and Undermines Democracy. Many think of the internet as a cheap, sometimes even free, place to operate. Hindman shows that is a common misconception. The internet has not reduced the cost of reaching audiences — it has merely shifted who pays and how. [...] Even firms who want to limit their collection of data cannot do so — the way the digital economy works, that would be suicide in slow motion. Internet will not destroy democracy, or news, but human choices can and strengthening antitrust enforcement is key. But so is a deeper understanding of how the internet economy works. If we can better understand how our choices add and multiply together, we can make wiser decisions, and Hindman’s book is a great place to start."
Hannah Drayson on Leonardo wrote:
"From the title of this book, the reader could well expect that it is yet another of these breathless condemnations of the internet. It is not. [...] The author demonstrates that, far from these optimistic claims, the market did not decentralize and in fact is dominated by large firms: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo!. [...] What the author does not do is give us a reason to care about bigness. Are large internet firms hurting customers, behaving anticompetitively, damaging markets? [...] On the plus side, (i) the author’s analysis of the decline of news media, the failure of current attempts to fix it, and what is likely to work better is first-rate; (ii) the author marshals extensive data to demonstrate his points; (iii) the book is well written and well documented. On the minus side, there is the author’s choice of problems: (i) much of the book is given over to demonstrating that the internet has evolved to be dominated by about a half-dozen large firms, much like the rest of the US economy. His reason for this focus is because this is not the outcome predicted by the internet gurus of the mid-1990s. It’s unlikely that readers of this journal will be terribly surprised by, or terribly interested in, this result. (ii) Another (well-documented) result presented in the book is the lack of online hyper-local news sources, which again, is included because this is not the outcome predicted. But the evidence suggests that the hyper-local news market is quite well served by print media, so there is little reason for concern."
"In The Internet Trap Hindman argues that we in fact live with two Inter-nets: the imagined Internet and the real Internet. [...] In the face of this distinction between the ambitions and rhetoric of the imagined Internet and the current situation, <emThe Internet Trap sets out to offer some explanation of the current online monopolies, the forces that maintain them and finally the extreme difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of dislodging them. [...] Applying principles of economic theory that might usually be considered more suited to 'real life' markets and industries, Hindman argues for understanding the Internet’s story as one of continuity rather than revolution and situates our current predicament in the wider context of media history."
Hindman on The Myth of Digital Democracy
In this video (10 min) Matthew Hindman is being interviewed about his previous book, The Myth of Digital Democracy (2008):
Table of Contents of The Internet Trap
- Rethinking the Attention Economy
- A Tilted Playing Field
- The Political Economy of Personalization
- The Economic Geography of Cyberspace
- The Dynamics of Web Traffic
- Less of the Same: Online Local News
- Making News Stickier
- The "Nature" of the Internet
About Matthew Hindman
Matthew Hindman is an associate professor in the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. His work focuses on political communication, digital audiences and online disinformation.