The past 150 years have brought a series of momentous shifts in the advancement of communication
and commerce, each catalyzed by new technologies that have increased the power of media: the
telegraph, the telephone, radio, television, the web, and, finally, the mobile internet. In each case, these
new modes of communication brought the world fresh commercial opportunities, facilitating the
exchange and promotion of goods and services that could reach an ever greater, and increasingly
Today, we are witnessing the next evolutionary leap: the assimilation of economic value into
communication systems. Digital services such as chat, social media, and online payments have come to
play a fundamental role in our daily lives, influencing not only our consumption behaviors, but also our
discourse, politics, and methods of value exchange. Our digital communications platforms are becoming
the most important media in the ongoing development of a global economy.
Through an accident of history, today’s dominant digital services have been organized largely around an
attention-based economy and monetized through advertising. This fact can be explained partly by the
“information wants to be free” ethos that characterized the early days of the internet, which encouraged
content owners and communication platforms to provide their products and services without asking for
payment. Inevitably, such companies would later sell the attention and data of their consumers to
advertisers and marketers. The ad-based approach has also proven to be a reliable business model in
the absence of universal and frictionless online payments solutions, which have only recently become
available, let alone practical.
The reliance on advertising for digital media revenue has resulted in advantages for companies whose
products reach mass audiences. Such companies can leverage network effects and economies of scale
to apply intense pressure to smaller competitors, while also stifling competition by providing their
services free of charge. As a result, large companies enjoy the compounding interest of incumbency,
concentrating wealth and power in the hands of the few. This is often to the detriment of consumer
privacy and user experience and almost always at the expense of new entrants to the sector.
In cases where digital communication providers have also been able to build meaningful businesses
based on transactions, the trends are just as concerning. Again, the incumbents can use network effects
and economies of scale to their advantage.