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How The Internet Turns Everything Into Marketing

The web is more and more a place to hand out business cards instead of a place to experiment and play.

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Stay at CES, the world's most important electricity trade show, for long enough and you'll get the feeling: a bone-deep queasiness that comes from too much networking, too much jargon and the jumbled sound of everyone promoting themselves at once. It's not a good vibe, but it's a common one — and it seems to be creeping its way onto nearly every platform on the internet.

Take Skillshare, for example. They're an earnest, well-meaning site with the stated aim of bringing people together to teach each other things. They're also transforming education as we know it by taking a more democratic approach. Anyone can teach a class, and they can teach anything they like. Together with $3.65 million in funding, it should be enough to create an educational utopia, a free exchange of ideas and abilities unencumbered by degrees or tuitions.

Except it looks like SXSW Interactive. There are PR folks teaching SEO, biz dev folks teaching biz dev and a surprising number of people interested in making Pinterest work for your business.

It's a question of incentives. Most of the classes won't bring their teachers more than a few hundred bucks — which isn't much compared to a consulting fee. If you're, say, a professional business coach, teaching a class is going to be more useful for recruiting customers than making money. It's a good place to learn things, but it's an even better place to network. (Anecdotally, a friend of mine used it to help establish herself as a men's style expert, and ended up getting a job out of it all. Hi, Marisa!) If the teachers involved are more interested in plugging their business than giving students their thirty dollars' worth, who can blame them?

It's not simply a Skillshare problem — it's fundamental to the web. Nearly everything on the web is better at getting attention than making money — and marketing is all about attention. That's why, when a personal blogger wants to monetize their hundred thousand uniques, they'll end up gently shilling for a like-minded brand (assuming they don't have an e-book or t-shirts for sale). A post on the latest thrilling breakthrough in shaving cream technology is the easiest way to turn that attention into money, or maybe free stuff. It's also why more and more of your Facebook feed has been taken up by professional humblebrags and Kickstarter pitches lately. Everyone's got something to promote.

Early adopters are also inclined to self-marketing from the outset. Whether they're picking up their paychecks from an ad agency or an out-and-out tech firm, staying current on up-and-coming web platforms is usually a big part of how they earn it. So naturally, they want everyone to know about it, starting with their boss. And since they're the users most early-stage services are competing for, nearly every online platform taps into some kind of mutual promotion.

It's not a coincidence that Quora displays a name and job title so prominently next to every answer. A good Quora answer is better than a business card. Suddenly, your expertise in ad analytics (for instance) is a matter of public record, and anyone researching the topic will see your name next to the answer. You could say the same for a must-read Twitter feed, or a high Klout score, or a comprehensive collection of FourSquare badges.

And your LinkedIn profile could probably use a polish.

Contact Russell Brandom at

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