We fucked up. Not just you, but me too. The gates to digital Eden were flung open and we were free to run in and take anything we wanted.
Newspapers tore down paywalls, fragmented content and hired people to splurt it out across the web for anyone, anywhere to do with it as they will. Forget about charging, we said, as we gave away the only thing that paid our wages.
Not only this, but as our office walls came tumbling down, we paid out even more money to hire extra people to write about and promote the very tools and technology that homogenised our content and destroyed our institutions – what You Are Not A Gadget
author Jaron Lanier calls journalistic Stockholm syndrome
We knew some of us would have to be the paying minority to support the non-paying majority, but tragedy of the commons thinking made sure that everyone thought someone else would pick up the bill as we rampaged across the web, taking what we liked without a care for who would pay for it and clean up our mess. We’ve done the equivalent of a digital supermarket sweep. But now the fun is over.
We are facing a bill for far more than we actually wanted or needed.
Give anyone too much freedom and they will quickly give you cause to erect walls of rules that ensure such a mess doesn’t happen again. Up go the paywalls and subscription walls. Down goes the power of the link – what good is a key if the door is boarded up – and down will go our consumption.
Like an all-you-can-eat buffet that switches to a normal menu halfway through the meal, we’re facing a bill for far more than we actually wanted or needed. We’re used to constant consumption of sub-par wares, and we’re going to have to get used to only eating when we’re hungry. Really hungry, as no one could afford to actually pay for every newspaper article they read online. Gone is the Pizza Hut buffet, in are canapés.
The sad thing is, it could have been so different. But like a teenager trusted to look after the house while the parents are away, we threw a party and are facing consequences that were so avoidable. Which is a shame, because we had it so good for so long.
I’ve read the same books as you, where digital evangelists like Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky talk about how knock-off handbags and piracy have actually helped increase demand for paid products, but we have to admit this just hasn’t worked for journalism. News trades in facts and information, which has proved tough to nail cash to. It’s difficult to own a fact, and without ownership – whether by an individual blogger or a big mean news org – there can be no profit.
In fact, monetising content seems to be the 21st century’s answer to Karl Dunker’s famous candle problem
, which has been used by economists to show that financial incentives actually inhibit our problem-solving abilities when the answer is abstract. Perhaps monetising content is doomed to failure by definition.
But now is a time for empiricism and not idealism. The wrong solution is much worse than no solution because we stop looking for what we think we’ve already found.
Our only hope is that a news company behind a paywall doesn’t need to serve up homogenised rot and can finally focus on the very same niche content the evangelists say we need.
Henry David Thoreau
once referred to much-touted technological marvels like the Transatlantic cable as “improved means to an unimproved end.”
And I think he’d say the same thing today if he looked at what the connections of modern fibre-optic cables have destroyed.