Science, pseudoscience, & media literacy

The “Free” Things Online Are Never Actually Free

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This came to mind recently because of a comment I saw on someone’s blog to do with a news site requiring a subscription to read article. With the explosion of the internet in recent years and the vast amount of content that’s available, we’ve come to expect things to be free. Except none of it is actually free.

Back in the not so distant day, if you wanted to consume news, you’d probably turn to newspapers, radio, and/or tv. Those things all cost money to produce, and we would pay partly through being exposed to advertising, and in some cases, through some form of direct payment.

Now, there are scads of different sources through which we’re getting and receiving information online. For many of them, we’re not providing any monetary payment, but the money’s gotta come from somewhere.

If you’re like me, you use some form of webmail. You also have a search engine that you use regularly, and several social media platforms. Plus, there are various sites where you view news and other content.

The news sites are probably relying on advertising to generate revenue, which is why, so often, there are ads galore. They often want you to create an account, even if getting that account is free, but they don’t necessarily force you to do so. Social media platforms have ads, as do search engines, but it doesn’t feel quite as in your face as news sites that have pop-ups galore. That’s because social media, webmail, and search engines, as well as sites you’ve created an account on, get to know you. In exchange for free services, we’re giving up information about ourselves, which means targeted advertising. There’s probably very little that Google and Facebook don’t know about you, and I’m guessing that’s true even if you don’t use (or don’t think you use) their services.

We seem to have accepted the current model mostly by default. It’s interesting to ponder, though, whether you’d be willing to pay for services in exchange for no ads and no data collection. You probably wouldn’t trust Facebook to follow through on such a thing, nor should you. But as a hypothetical, would you be willing to pay money to cover the actual cost of the services you use?

To be honest, I don’t think I’d cough up the cash. I use various Google services, and they already know everything about me, so I don’t see that much reason to suddenly start caring. There’s nothing particularly interesting about me, and I’m too cheap to buy anything they try to sell me. Pinterest is my main social media, but their ads are primarily directed at mobile users and the web browser on my laptop has hardly any ads, so that’s all good. And in terms of information coming in, my BS radar is always on.

I find it hard to imagine that WordPress earns more than a token amount from advertising on free blogs. I’m entirely making this up, but I wonder if WP operates the free plan at a bit of a loss to lure people in. Or does it learn about you and sell your data? I haven’t looked at the terms and conditions to see if anything about that can be teased out. I wonder the same sort of thing with freemium apps. And presumably with free apps, they’re getting something from us.

It’s interesting that it’s evolved this way. Back in the day, if you wanted to play Oregon Trail, you’d have to go to the store and buy the floppy disk (and I mean the really old, actually floppy, floppy disks) with Oregon Trail loaded in so you could take it hope and play. Now, we don’t want to pay for things. But even aside from the profits that Mark Zuckerberg is taking home, it all costs money. The Oregon Trail developers have to be paid somehow.

So we pay, somehow. Whether we’re aware of it or not.

PS: I wrote this before I saw the new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. While the doc is clearly taking a side, and the messaging needs to be evaluated in that light. it makes some really interesting points. Have you ever thought about what the product is for social media companies? It’s not the platform, by the way; it’s you, the user.

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35 thoughts on “The “Free” Things Online Are Never Actually Free”

  1. TANSTAAFL – There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (Robert A. Heinlein)

    I don’t use Facebook or Google directly (actually I occasionally use Google), but I probably do use them in some ways, they have their fingers in so many pies. It worries me a bit how much they know. We’ve handed our personal information to a small group of people, and a highly specific demographic at that.

    I use various services in the Jewish community (online and real-world) that are provided free at point of use, but I try to give a donation every year to cover my use. I probably give below the market value, which I don’t think is unfair given my financial status (which reminds me that I haven’t done it yet even though it was due a few weeks ago because my financial situation is even more precarious).

  2. So true, and I can see both sides of it. For me to read Carolyn Hax’s column, I have to enter the Washington Post’s page incognito or they try to force me to buy a subscription. I don’t want to pay for a subscription, but at least I respect their content enough to no longer copy/paste her advice column onto my obviously free-access blog. So that’s one advice columnist I can no longer comment on, but I understand her need to get paid for writing the column, so I’m sort of torn. But I’ll still copy/paste Annie Lane and Ask Amy, because they don’t try to conceal their content. For a brief while, Carolyn Hax was available through Arcamax (Ask Amy’s syndicate, and Annie Lane can be found there too) but she got fed up with them, and I don’t blame her. They botched her ex-husband’s artwork every day by cropping it all wrong, and no reader likes the ad experience at Arcamax which literally kills my internet connection–no kidding, and go figure. I hate how ad networks are gathering info about me for ads, but on the other hand I’d rather see an ad for LL Bean than for something offensive or gross. Such a weird and complex issue all around!

    1. For sure. I’m sure sites like Arcamax must consider the potential readers they lose because of all the ads, and finely tune it in the way that makes them the most moeny.

  3. I am a creature of old days, I still get most of my news from the local stations. I do check in on the cable news.
    I do not buy subs because I do not see a need to. I miss the days of actual news paper. The one in my town went belly up after being here for the good part of a century.
    So if it is free I will use it, but paid for sites to get the news, nah!

  4. Before Oregon Trail on floppy diskette, there was Miner 49er on…cassette tape. The PET computer circa 1980 ran on cassette tapes. The “graphics” were literally two individual squares (think original cursor) moving so slowly across screen 😂

  5. You’re right, nothing is free. There’s always something behind anything we use, even if we don’t realise it. I know people that pay more for convenience or no ads, but I’m not that kind of girl. Give me a page of ad pop-ups that annoy the sh*t out of me, as long as I don’t have to pay actual money! x

  6. Good post! As an ex-journalism student, this topic saddens me. Whenever I can afford it, I try to pay for news. I currently pay for the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times.

    I guess you could say both of those “newspapers” lean left, but I trust their reporting. Plus, I feel like I’m contributing to journalism, which we used to call the fourth estate. Now people- like our current president in the states – call journalists the enemy of the people.

    As for “free” news sources, I trust NPR. Many conservatives here in the US want to government to defund NPR because they think it’s too leftist.

    It’s an interesting topic for sure. I think most people nowadays don’t know what to believe anymore. Some coworkers were just telling me their parents are buying into conspiracy theories about vaccines.

    1. It’s scary that people people are calling journalists and the media the enemy of the people, when a free press is essential for a functioning democracy.

      Despite all the criticism of everything flying around, there seems to be a significant lack of critical thinking, and lack of ability to evaluate information based on the source and the source’s potential bias.

      In Canada, news tends to be more middle of the road than in the U.S., and my go-to is our public broadcaster, the CBC.

    1. Thanks! And I agree, it’s important to be mindful of what we put out to the world. I have a fake birthday that I use for any site that is asking for a birthday but has no legitimate need for it.

  7. There are some sites and platforms that actually do let you pay a fee to get rid of advertising. I never do though because I’m poor and cheap lol. I’d rather put up with the inconvenience of wading through the ads I suppose.

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