On Saturday, I saw this:
“How dare they put content behind a pay wall?!” + “I hate all these advertisments! I’m blocking them!” = “Wait – Why’d they go out of biz?”
— Dave Mark (@IADaveMark) March 9, 2013
And, well, it pisses me off.
Not because it’s wrong — it’s factual.
End-users of a product on the internet tend to dislike the often intrusive advertisements that are frequently used; there are an array of ad-blockers that are free and easy to use.
And the use of a paywall to prevent non-paying customers from accessing your content … well, that’s just not a successful strategy without a large, dedicated, locked-in readership. While I’m not sure anybody has ever actually uttered that “how dare they …” sentence, the internet is built on linking from site to site. Those links are the “web” in “worldwide web”. The way the “net” gets “inter”ed. So blocking your content from it … well, that means that your content is not on the internet, in a way. You might be able to access content behind a paywall via the internet, but that’s different.
Besides which, most sites — this one included — get fly-by one-visit traffic. Which does not make for a paying subscriber.
So if it’s factual, why do I have a problem with it? Well, there’s the logical fallacy, of course — it assumes there are only two methods to monetize popular content on the internet — but mostly because it blames potential customers for not thinking the product is worth the charge.
With paywalls, the charge is obvious — it’s written down and proposed as a monetary value. Then, people (by-and-large) don’t find it’s worth the proposed charge. And there you go.
With advertising, the charge is less obvious, but still there. Your time. Your attention. Your ability to ignore the blinking thing on the right hand side of the page and not increase the clickthrough rate. Your stubborn refusal to not buy what the person at the other end of the ad is selling, and not increase the conversion rate. It’s all down to what you, as the consumer, are willing to pay with a combination of attention and money.
And that’s who is blamed, via this (unfortunately common) sentiment. You, dear reader, for not being a consumer of the things you don’t want that are in the advertisement. For finding it more convenient to read something else than traverse the paywall. That is unacceptable behaviour, according to this sentiment. And it is this behaviour – your behaviour – which is causing the demise of these for-profit corporations that cannot find a way to ask you to pay for what you use.
Others can. Wikipedia simply asks people to donate. And they do. Amanda Palmer gave a fantastic TED talk about artists allowing themselves to ask for things. About letting people pay, instead of finding a way to force them to pay. Wikipedia was there first, asking for our contributions in 2001. It’s still here now, and not because anybody was forced to part with their money but because people wanted – and still want – to support Wikipedia.
I doubt there is a general solution — in truth, the number of solutions probably approaches the number of companies with this problem. And a number of these companies deserve to go under. But the approach being taken — cut back staff, lean on the wires more, complain that your customers seem to prefer something other than what you’re offering — leads to bankruptcy. It just does so as slowly as possible, devaluing the product while waiting for somebody else to invent a magic bullet that can be copied.
But there’s no magic bullet, except to look at what you have — a group of writers, a group of readers — and figuring out a solution that allows the writers to keep writing and the readers to keep reading.
The idea isn’t complicated, it’s just hard. And there’s no blame.
Postscript: After writing all the above, I read Jeff Gerstmann writing about something similar, which is pertinent.