A “Gratitude Economy”is Coming

The most commonly asked question I get about Ever Widening Circles is some version of, “How does it pay for itself if you have no ads?”

The tone is often a bit incredulous, both because most people see the site as such a breath of fresh air, and most know that funding is the first problem facing every web-based concept.

The short answer is, I’ve been underwriting Ever Widening Circles (EWC) personally for 5 years while we worked to make it worthy of a something I’m calling the beginning of a “gratitude economy.”  This is a wave of responsibility and goodwill that is starting to replace the “attention economy” that currently dominates how the internet works.

You see, back when all my idea bubbles for EWC were coalescing, I noticed that more and more corporations were wanting to be seen as socially responsible and I suspected the internet would eventually become an exciting, crowded space filled with pioneers who would find the current “attention economy” of the web a mismatch with their values. To most in this new breed of business owners, being “responsible’ means making the world a better place while still being profitable, and there is almost no correlation between that goal and the current chaos on the web which is singularly based on who can get our attention.  

You see, one of the many things I’ve learned from writing or editing over a thousand articles on insights and innovations for Ever Widening Circles, is that every single click we make is being counted by someone who is keenly interested in what gets our attention. I’m not referring to some sort of diabolical conspiracy, it’s just how the web evolved. In fact, we are all a part of the fundamental engine of the web which is “counting clicks”.

Think about what we all do after we make a social media post: we start counting how many clicks, likes and shares we are getting!

That’s at the core of almost all web content. No one, even you an I, goes to the trouble of putting things on the web that won’t get clicked on.

If it were just a matter of getting more people to learn about our new baby, a fabulous charity event, or the great Zumba instructor we just met, we would not be in our current state of overwhelm. Sadly, many have found a way to entice us to click on things that appeal to our impulses—no matter how disturbing—and then advertisers get more eyeballs on what they are offering to humanity, good or bad. Makes no difference.

How did we get here?

Some of you know that I have come to the digital publishing world as a complete outsider, having spent my professional life as a dentist and world traveler. I vividly remember the day I realized the web is essentially an “attention economy” and every single click is a vote that says, “Yes, please. Definitely give me more of this!”

Think of it this way: Let’s say you’ve found a proven way to save the rain forest using old cell phones, or maybe you have found an amazing way to end malaria for millions of people? Well, once you put that big idea on the internet, then you are in head to head competition for our attention with this guy who has a super-duper male enhancement potion, made from the horns of the last Rhinos on our planet.

Now, this is the way that battle for attention goes: he uses a clickbait photo or headline that is wildly more compelling than yours, and he wins in an “attention economy.” Your projects remain in obscurity and will eventually disappear. His project gets funded by people who see how much attention he got. And then advertisers and search engines continue to amplify his “success.” That’s it.

Currently, if you are trying to sell a product, service or idea that could change the world for everyone, there is only one playing field. Put simply: great ideas live or die on the vine based not on their merit these days, but on how good they are at getting our attention in the scrum that we call the web.

And as we all know from our current climate of acrimony and distrust, there is not much chance for a bright future if that’s our only recipe for paying for the internet.

It’s this simple: What we click on, we get more of. That’s why we all think that people who don’t vote like us are crazy. Each of our algorithms, serving us content, are utterly unique and there are now 7.3 billion versions of “reality.” That would naturally lead to a lot of arguing and negative impulses flying.

The Coming “Gratitude Economy”

I’m proposing that both a short-term and a long-term pivot is badly needed and very possible.

A “quick fix” for the overwhelming negativity of the web would begin the wave of change and it’s almost as simple as the problem!

What if we spread the word that a click is like a vote? What if people understood that clicking out of boredom, curiosity and anger actually brings us all more unhelpful content? I suspect that notion would inspire many people to start getting more selective with their clicks? And then, what if they started purposefully sharing content that points to a brighter shared future?

Eventually, I can imagine the long-term fix would come out of all that more more considered clicking. A new model would emerge that creates a win/win/win situation for everyone: consumers, advertisers, and the beneficiaries of their socially responsible projects. In a gratitude economy, many consumers would be grateful for the opportunity to participate in making the world a better place for everyone and they would be (are already) inspired, even happy, to pay a little more for products or service that involve progress for all.

As this gratitude economy grows, there will be a tipping point where the bad actors will start to fall away by attrition because they will look glaringly out of step with a new social contract on the web. Remember, the power of our clicks can spawn an awful lot of good too! I’ve started referring to this as the coming of a Gratitude Economy.  

I think it’s already well underway and we just haven’t named it yet!

Many millennials I know show their gratitude for people solving problems by voting with their wallets! They have been supporting the pioneers in this space for quite some time if you count the way they are willing to spend more than necessary for a pair of shoes when they know their money will also go on to donating a pair to a needy person. Models like that are popping up in every genre and they are making headway!

I suspect we are at the beginning of a climb out of the toddler running with scissors phase of the internet, and we’re already finding the best way to use the web is for the common good.

In fact, EWC is beginning the search for underwriters who want to connect with this growing sentiment of gratitude, and we are reserving all our underwriter spots for companies that have a socially responsible business model. We’ll be using something we call a “Thank You Note” in the sidebar of every EWC article to put a spotlight on some of the best socially responsible businesses in this new model of goodness for all. It’s another win/win/win model.

Bottom line: The Gratitude Economy that I’m imagining would reward people who are creating projects, businesses, information and trustworthy content that points to progress for everyone.

Good intention would be good for business and creative thought leaders.

Here’s an amazing infographic that points to the growing willingness of consumers to pay more for brands that are making the world a better place:

Keep in mind, that growth is just over a 3 year period and the data is now over 4 years old! Goodness knows what those stats would look like now.

This is getting serious. Looks like people are embracing a new social contract that is finding its way on the internet all around the world, and it goes something like this:

An organisation should be accountable for its own impacts on society, the economy and the environment.” (Harris 2016)

For my part, back in 2014, I thought the web could use some curation to get the ball rolling, so I resolved to create a place that people of all walks could trust for insight and innovation, with no political or commercial agenda. In other words, the nicest place on the internet.

Let’s face it, the current model of interruption-based advertising is not nice. It is often aggravating at best, deceptive and even dangerous at its worst.

It’s time to turn our backs on the negative players who thrive in that model and look for a way to give good will an advantage. Our Ever Widening Circles journey has taught us there is no end to the people and projects aimed specifically at improving the future and when you learn about these efforts you can’t help but feel grateful that someone has the know-how and courage to see a problem and solve it.

Think that change is impossible? Here is a real number!

It would be easy to look at the challenge of changing the dialogue on the web as hopeless and far too big for any of us to tackle, but we’ve discovered an inspiring statistic. Turns out, we don’t need everyone to be on-board. In fact, we don’t even need a majority to help bring about change! The World Economic Forum recently published an eye-opening study in the journal Science wherein they calculated that there is a “tipping point” for major social change—a specific number of people needed to push a belief from the fringes into the mainstream—and it appears to be 25%. 

That’s a doable number! There are at least that many people around the planet who want to see a brighter future for everyone. 

Imagine a future when a Gratitude Economy was the engine of the web: a system where thoughtful consumers and seekers of information could quickly and easily connect with businesses, organizations, and individuals who subscribe to a code of conduct that is uplifting and sustainable. Connections, relationships and transactions would be made with a glad heart on both sides.

It’s on the horizon folks. We can already see signs of it all around us: a place where many are committed to a higher standard of being responsible for their neighbors, their fellow humans and every aspect of the planet we are all sharing.

This is a “gratitude economy” because we would all be thankful for the others we find there: a network of people who want a better world for everyone.

Lynda Ulrich