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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