As a Millennial growing up in the digital age, I have gotten used to not paying for stuff.
What am I talking about?
The answer is, of course, the internet; more specifically, information on the internet.
It is amazing to think of it, but the vast majority of the available content on the web is at our fingertips for free. Of course, you (usually) have to pay for the physical or wireless connection to a device, but once you have actually got access you can browse the vast majority of websites without hitting a pay wall. From Wikipedia to Youtube, Reddit to Facebook, the major websites and social media platforms of the web do not require payment or subscription fees for full access.
So how do they make money? Adverts, of course. Lots and lots of adverts.
This ‘free’ business model, financed by advertising, is so ubiquitous on the web that most people just take it for granted, and often get irritated if they stumble across a website requiring subscription for access. It’s a little odd really – we would never expect to pick up a physical copy of a newspaper for free, so why would we expect it to be free online?
Most people – for obvious reasons – love the ‘free’ model online. You can access so much, and don’t have to pay. What’s not to like? I have to say, until very recently I fell into this category as well.
However, I’ve started to have a bit of a change of heart. There seems to be a general increase in subscription-based online business models recently – most especially in the realm of news media – and I’m not so sure that this is such a bad trend at all.
My main issues with the ‘free’ model are based around quality of content, intrusiveness of advertising, and privacy of information. I’ll address quality first.
Let’s be honest – there is a lot of crap on the internet. Unfortunately, this is not just from individuals and small-time operations; it also often comes from major or supposedly-reputable sources. Most people realise that websites like BuzzFeed are load of nonsense, but when you have once-respectable newspapers like the Independent churning out similar, badly-edited clickbait you realise there is a problem. This issue partly (or perhaps, largely) stems from the advertising business model. The more clicks a webpage can get, the more ad revenue it creates; the answer therefore is often to make the headlines and content as alluring and tacky as possible. As such, we are left with a race-to-the-bottom mentality a lot of the time, as different websites create ever-more sensationalist headlines in order to reel in the punters.
This is why, in general, the best quality content on the web tends to be subscription-based. Netflix is famed for the excellence of many of its specials – why? Probably because it has a steady income flow from subscriptions rather than relying on ad revenue. The best-quality magazines and newspapers are also starting to move (or already have) to subscription models, which I think is generally a positive step; God help us if The Economist ever fell into the clickbait black hole!
It is not just the big organisations either; some of my favourite content-creators on Youtube are those who refuse to monetise their content via advertising, but instead primarily rely on subscriptions through sites like Patreon – they get a steady stream of income from people who care about what they do, and can create content without fear of interference or pressure from advertising companies who are scared of being associated with anything mildly ‘controversial’ that might tarnish their brand image.
This leads nicely into my second point – the general intrusiveness and influence of advertising. I am so sick of videos and webpages being interrupted with un-skippable adverts, usually for products I have absolutely no interest in (does anybody else constantly get those bloody Grammarly adverts?). It breaks up our viewing enjoyment, and further cements the problem of short attention-span and inability to properly concentrate which has become noticeable amongst people (especially of my age) in the last twenty or so years. Everywhere you go on the internet, you have to navigate through a wall of adverts to get to your content.
Of course, some will say, you can just use Adblock. Indeed, sometimes I do. But that often means denying money to the small-scale, independent content creators that I really like and want to support. This is why I am becoming more and more fond of subscription-based services – it means these entrepreneurial spirits can continue to produce excellent stuff, and means I can get past all those advertisements, which are annoying, intrusive – and often worrying.
Why worrying? Because the level of information that these companies can collect on us is alarming. The recent WannaCry episode should have woken us all up to the dangers of the internet, especially revolving around privacy and information security – but the threat does not just come from criminals. I find it quite disturbing how well-attuned these adverts are to my search history and previous preferences; I really don’t like how they can be so well targeted at individual customers. How long will it be before each advert starts addressing us by our names, and algorithms decide on how best to tailor the promotion exactly to us? How much information do companies already have just from our internet presence? It makes for some worrying thinking, especially considering how vague everyone seems to be on just how much of our personal information is collected and disseminated online.
These are long-term problems that will probably have to be sorted via changes to both general attitudes and the law. However, I think a good first step would be to limit the targeted advertising by random companies online. Of course, we need some advertising – I’m not against it all. Advertising is a necessary aspect of capitalism, and if done well can be fairly tasteful and actually quite helpful. For an excellent example, take a look at the (sterling) Art of Manliness website – the adverts are not random blaring banners promoting something you happened to search last week, but directly associated with the theme of the website – useful products for men. On his associated podcast series, the founder Brett Mckay advertises products that he actually uses and likes, rather than the items sold by any random company who offers to pay him ad revenue. I don’t think the internet should be completely blocked behind subscription pay walls, and I think the openness and ease of access to websites funded by advertising can be a good thing, especially if managed well. It is the complete free-for-all, targeted aspect of a lot of internet advertising that worries me.
Overall, I am very supportive of the recent trends towards subscription models. In our modern age, the internet is the great disseminator of content – and the more quality material on it the better. I don’t want to live in an online future of mindless clickbait and sensationalism; if the price paid for less intrusiveness and more excellent quality content is a few pounds a month, sign me up.