It is with deep regret that I must inform you today, the week of your 25th birthday, that you were not selected to be the wondrous, humanity-uniting technology that would finally bring about Utopia where everything is free and awesome. If you’re not being cracked down upon by some bad state actor, or seized for extra-legal spying operations, you’re facilitating the spreading wild, unsubstantiated me-first speculation or reinforcing the ideological “filter bubbles” that threaten to further polarize the populace. Sometimes, I think you’re little more than a speed-of-light tabloid press. Or possibly the first iteration of Skynet.
But, frankly, it’s time you started pulling your own weight around here.
It’s a truism that you have changed the world. For many who’ve found a career in proselytizing for the digital revolution, it is self-evident that you and your layabout, technology friends will lead humanity toward some enlightened, peaceful, Star Trek-like destiny, as long as we do away with copyright, curb the excesses of capitalism, and keep progressive Democrats in the White House. These are usually the same people who espouse pat slogans like “Information Wants to Be Free!”
The collective web’s longtime focus on “free,” “disintermediation,” or the “long tail” has obscured a more accurate, if less jingoistic truth about human society: Even if information really did “want to be free,” people want to get paid.
Despite our school librarians’ best efforts to teach us otherwise, an entire generation has now grown up on “I’ll read a summary of the article on one of the blogs I follow” and “I can just check the Wikipedia article’s citations for more sources” and, if their college education was worth a damn, maybe even “the marginal cost of reproducing digital goods is zero.” This has led us all to one inevitable conclusion: an ad-supported digital infotainment industry that thrives on brain-stabblingly sensationalistic headlines and a definition of “privacy” that simply means replacing your name with an ID number in the dossier cataloging your every interest imaginable.
Don’t get me wrong. I like cute animal listicles as much as the next netizen, and if fuzzy animals or sardonic street-style mockery can support legit investigative journalism and in-depth coverage, more power to ’em. Television and newspapers relied heavily on advertising revenues well before the rise of the web. Moreover, many millions of creators produce content for reasons beyond just money (I’m sure not getting a paycheck here), and much of that content is rather good. Humans are creative beings, and not every human endeavor demands a price tag.
That said, it may be cliché, but it’s generally true: if you’re not paying, you’re the product being sold. I realize it’s pointless to fight it, I just want readers to understand that we gave up our real-world names for a world where giant websites earn ad revenues by repackaging content from Reddit.
However, there is a bright side. Not all digital media has been priced down to zero. The web has been disruptive, but not completely earth-shattering for film, TV and music. iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Netflix, and others have literally saved the old entertainment industries from imploding under zero-marginal-cost economics. I can tell you the market price of syndicated NBC re-runs and House of Cards, and it’s about $8/month. LinkedIn offers paid accounts for professionals who see value in the service’s ability to help build leads and recruit new employees. Readers are still willing to pay for quality commentary, too, as long as the writer has established credibility.
Free culturists may decry the construction of every new paywall or closed platform as a closing-off of the web, a sign that the Internet has fallen under Corporate Control (, man), but an Internet that empowers people to produce things that others want to pay for is a technocapitalist fantasy-come-true, and I hope that, given time, the journalism industry will figure out how to sustain itself without resorting to becoming one big tabloid.
And it’s about time, because seriously, one more Upworthy headline will destroy my faith in humanity.