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It is difficult to imagine a world in which the Internet were not free, perhaps even impossible. It’s one of the main selling points of the Internet.
Free and democratic, the barriers to access have become so low that even the most basic of devices can be connected through mobile data connection. Ruth recently had an old version Nokia, the kind that can be driven over or put in the washing machine, and even that could connect to the Internet through a basic portal. The costs of access are minimal. Once online, virtually everything is free. Until recently, at least. And since the Internet is so central to the functioning of modern life, those costs are as implicit as paying for energy or rent, just a fact of the way things are. WiFi in your house and mobile data in your pocket are fundamental.
But money makes the world go round, as they say. We are aware on some level that companies get rich off the Internet, even if it feels free to users. Advertising has long been the primary way of staving off financial barriers. Platforms that are free to use, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter and so on, get revenue from exposing their users to ads. YouTube also has increasingly intrusive commercials. I remember the days when YouTube was something of a free-for-all with the partners simply displaying an ad-box next to the video. Now users are forced to watch an advert before some videos, or watch for a certain time before it’s possible to skip.
Inherent in this model of the Internet is that user attention is valuable. Targeted ads turn users into consumers who purchase products and services. Attention becomes itself a commodity. The power to direct and attract that attention is extremely lucrative. It is one of the most valuable assets that any of us has in the modern consumer economy, and yet we give it away so frequently and so easily: our data.
This is the darker side of an Internet monetised by advertising. It is common knowledge that what each individual experiences of the Internet is different, determined by our user history, our personal information, our previous searches. We are shown more and more of the content we are likely to respond to, to clock on, and are drawn deeper into enclaves of opinion. The great open Internet, with all its promise of connecting individuals and eradicating borders of time and space, has created more unified cultures of extremism. In 2019, this is hardly a revelation.
And since attention and data are commodities, they are facts that we control only as long as we possess them. As with physical goods, once we have given them away, exchanged them for access to a site, traded them for an account or to read a publication, they are they able to be exchanged further. The value is transferred as the commodity itself transfers between parties. Legislation such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations acknowledges this fact. Breaches and misuses of personal data are headline stories these days. Think of the Russian fake news conspiracy during the 2016 US presidential election, or Cambridge Analytica in the UK.
Another noticeable downside of the free-with-ads Internet is that clicks equal money. The goal is to expose an audience to as many adverts as possible and writing content that will grab their attention at any cost. This is the world of clickbait, and it is the result of an environment that needs your clicks. There is a tidal wave of low quality, sensationalised content that has the simple aim of getting you onto a webpage that contains adverts. Content is valuable for the pulling power of its headline as everyone competes for page views, the same divided attention. In 2016, there was the infamous case of the Macedonian teenagers who published fake news stories about Donald Trump because these pages would attract attention and were therefore lucrative advertising spaces.
As I see it, we need long-form, slow paced and “boring” content more than ever. We need the kind of factual narratives and creative work that gets into the depths of modern problems and doesn’t operate on the level of tabloid news and listicles.
What are the alternatives? Is it possible to have high quality content that is also freely available online? Will the current advertising model of the Internet continue to water down the substance of journalism and reporting?
It’s important to acknowledge first off that Internet has never really been free, as discussed above. It is paid for somehow, though the cost is not paid by the user, and when it is, it’s not a cost they know that they are paying. But beyond that, there are other emergent models for maintaining quality on the Internet.
Some publications have decided to treat their online presence as they would a physical newspaper of magazine. The Telegraph and Times have paid for subscriptions. You have to pay for a broadsheet, so you pay for the content where ever it appears, whether that is online or in print, so the logic goes. It’s not a popular approach, because people don’t want to have to suddenly pay for something if they’ve always been able to read it online for free.
The New Yorker and others offer a limited number of free stories a month. If you want full access, then you start a paid subscription or buy the physical item. Other news providers and services keep all the content free and instead ask for donations to support production, such as the Guardian and Wikipedia.
Many of the creators I follow online adopt this model. The premise is that if you create something of value, then people will be willing to pay for it. These creators make a certain volume of their work freely available, and then offer exclusive videos, podcasts, benefits, merchandise and whatever else their fans might want for a paid subscription.
So far I don’t make any money through this website. I write because I enjoy writing. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ll continue to write whether or not I earn any money. The joy of writing comes from the process itself, not from the numbers of people that read my articles. In fact, I would like to be able to do more writing.
If you get value from our writing and ever think “it would be a crying shame if they weren’t able to publish any more”, you can now join with us and contribute to what we do. Of course, if you’d rather carry on reading without contributing, that’s also fine. No hard feelings. That is the beauty of pay-what-you-feel. We’ve set up a creator page on Patreon, a service that enables fans to support the work of the creators that they love.
They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It may be another well-worn money cliché, but that aphorism is as true on the Internet as anywhere, even if the costs are well hidden and often paid unknowingly. Money will continue to shape a nominally free space, the future of which lies somewhere along the line between profit and democracy.