The web’s original sin

What do a recent A List Apart article, the ad blocker discussion of a few months back, and my browser testing plans have in common?

Free content entitlement, that’s what.

I’m seriously questioning the idea that all content on the web ought to be free. I think it’s an essentially accidental initial state of the web that quietly became the default. By now, consumers (also of web development blogs) feel they have a right to to free content, and producers (including me) do nothing to disabuse them of that notion.

As a result, free content and services have become an entitlement — an unearned privilege. There’s nothing inevitable about content and services being free, although we collectively chose to make free content a cornerstone of the web. That choice, I now think, is the web’s original sin.

I’m wondering if it’s time to significantly revise our thinking on free content and services. In order to explore this problem I wrote this rather long and rambling, but totally FREE, essay. I hope there’s a point hidden somwhere, but you get what you pay for.

The web is in danger!

When Apple announced it would allow ad blockers on iOS, free content sites went potty:

Apple’s Support of Ad Blocking May Upend How the Web Works

AdBlocking — Is it Destroying the Open Web?

Or take this beauty:

It’s a world where a huge percentage of Web visitors never see the ads that pay for everything they read and watch. Who or what, then, will pay for the Internet?

Oh noez! Quick, go stare at a banner for weight loss through student loan refinancing for an hour! The Internet needs you!

In case you’ve been asleep for six months I’ll repeat the obvious: this is all nonsense.

Ad-funded free content providers have a strong vested interest in pretending the web is in danger from ad blockers. They need to protect their revenue stream — and if they can generate some clicks along the way, so much the better.

But the web is a lot larger than just news sites with problematic business models. E-commerce sites, brochure sites, government sites, personal homepages, web interfaces for various services, none of them are inconvenienced in the slightest by ad blockers.

Let’s back that up with some numbers. I found an estimate that ad blockers will cost publishers $22 billion in revenue — and this number’s source is likely the ad agencies, who have a vested interest in making it as high as possible.

How much is the global online economy worth? I found a 2011 estimate of $8 trillion. Now I don’t know exactly what this measures: is all of the internet economy enabled by the web? What, in fact, is the internet economy? Also, this number is five years old.

Let’s cross off one problem against the other, and declare with scientific rigour fuzzy logic that the total share of ads in the Internet economy is

22 bn / 8 trn = 0.275%.

Ad blockers remove about one quarter of one percent of the total internet economy. Hell, make it half a percent — it’s still not a lot. That’s why I’m confident that the web will survive the ad blocker tsunami.

Professional free content creators

Of course fuzzy math doesn’t help when you’re in the affected industry. And here’s where we get to the web’s original sin. Consider this summary of content creators’ plight:

Advertising is the economic engine that drives the free Internet. The reality is the last 20 years have seen people developing content online for distribution, and consumers have opted in for that free content.

This sounds sober and serious, but it omits one crucial clause: the people who create free online content expect to get paid.

Before you go into full Well Duh! mode, remember one thing: many free content creators don’t expect to get paid. Instead, they create free content because it’s FUN.

That isn’t going to change. Nothing prevents you from having fun with a hobby site about econometrics, horse breeding, ancient Roman elections, or board games, regardless of what ad blockers do or do not do to the free Internet.

The people in trouble are the professional free content creators. Their days are numbered. You’ll either be a free content creator, or a professional content creator — in the sense that you earn a living with content creation. But you can’t be both.

Affected sites need to find revenue streams independent of ads. I’m not well acquainted with online publication business models, but Vitaly Friedman is, and he gives a thorough run-through of the options. I’ll add just one note: it’s conceivable that ad blockers are going to get rid of the clickbait-farm-type of sites for us. Nobody’s willing to pay for those sites.

Apps, apps, apps

Back in the day, Apple and the first mobile app creators decided apps should be cheap. Not free — the web proved that that can’t work — but obviously people wouldn’t want to pay a lot for an app. So: cheap.

Why was it obvious people weren’t going to pay a lot for apps? I have no clue. But everybody involved decided it was, consumers eagerly agreed, and now we’re going to have to live with the consequences.

There is a routine I occasionally do during talks or workshops:

Me
Please raise your hand if you’re a gamer.
Them
[About half the audience raises their hands]
Me
Keep your hands up if you ever spent $/€25 on a computer game or a board game.
Them
[90% of the hands stay up]
Me
Keep your hands up if you ever spent $/€25 on a game for a tablet or mobile phone.
Them
[90% of the hands go down]
Me
See the problem?
Them
[What’s the problem? Some get it, some don’t.]

For a desktop computer game, $/€25 is considered a reasonable price — and physical board games are often much more expensive. But as soon as people are invited to spend that money on an iOS or Android app, they soberly point out that that’s a LOT of money and they aren’t sure the app is worth it.

The price difference between desktop apps and tablet/mobile apps does not make any sense, but everybody pretends it does. It’s one of the minor mysteries of the mobile world, and I hope a competent psychologist will come up with an explanation one day.

Explanation or not, this is the reason the app economy didn’t work out as expected. I told you so six years ago. Want numbers?

In 2011, 63 percent of apps were paid downloads, selling for an average of $3.64 apiece. By last year, a mere 27 percent of downloads were paid, and the average price had fallen to $1.27. Today, profiting from the App Store most often requires a mix of in-app purchases, subscriptions, and advertising.

And this is on iOS, the platform that everybody agrees is the best money maker in the industry. The details are different, but the pattern is the same as on the web.

Entitlement

The expectation that everything online is free is an entitlement, an unearned privilege, on the part of consumers. There’s nothing inevitable about it.

At university I learned that teleology is a most hideous sin in historical studies. The fact that something turned out a certain way does not mean that it was predestined to be that way.

I feel that in the case of free content we’re practicing teleology: the fact that free content exists proves that free content is the best — and, in fact, the only — possible way the web could have developed.

I don’t think that’s right. I feel that free content is a coincidental byproduct of the fact that many early, enthusiastic proto-bloggers were having too much fun creating it to think about business models. Besides, there were no good online payment options back then. This led consumers to believe that it ought to be free.

True, the idea of free content for all was present on the web from the very first day, but I tend to see the fun factor as more important than ideology because it’s more ... well ... fun.

In any case, the first (paid) Internet consultants told everyone, especially newspapers, that they should give away their content for free because that’s what all the cool kids were doing. This reinforced the cycle of free: if even the newspapers are doing it, it must be a great strategy.

That turned out not to be the case, but by the time we noticed consumers already felt entitled to free content. In that sense, the crisis of journalism is a historical accident that might have been prevented.

Payment is not an option

The problem goes beyond content. Take Twitter. Every once in a while there will be some somber prognosis that essentially boils down to the lack of an adequate business model. Although I’m a fervent Twitter user and couldn’t do without it, I am fundamentally unsympathetic to their plight.

Why? Because they don’t even allow me to pay. If they’d create a paid option I’d take it immediately; I feel I should support a service that is so indispensable to me. But the option isn’t even there.

I get why they want to keep the service free. I do not get why they don’t allow people like me to subscribe on a strictly volunteer basis. I’m sure a few tens of thousands of heavy users would take a subscription, and even though that won’t bring in enough money to solve Twitter’s problems, it would at least signal Twitter’s willingness to think out of the box instead of just about those stupid ads.

Twitter has internalized consumers’ sense of entitlement. No wonder it’s in perpetual trouble.

So ask yourself this question: Are free online content and services a fundamental right? Or are they an entitlement caused by a historical accident that we would be better off without? If we could do it all over, would we opt for free again?

Also, the whole problem of “if you're not paying for the product, you are the product” could be solved more easily if we acknowledge that free stuff is not a fundamental right.

Free content as a strategy

Whether or not it’s a fundamental right, free content can be a good strategy. We all know the score: give away stuff for free, and you’ll get exposure, and paid jobs will follow. This has worked for me, up to a point, and for many others.

The problem with getting jobs through a free content strategy is that you have to work a lot harder: not only do you have to do the paid job, but you also have to publish more free content in order to secure the next job.

The question I’ve been asking myself recently is: do I get enough paid jobs out of my free work to justify the time? Is this business model sustainable in the long run? I’d love to still contribute to the Web when I’m 70, but I need to have some sort of financial buffer in place by that time.

Recently an article, written for free by Rachel Andrew and published for free by A List Apart, addressed these issues and set me thinking.

As an industry we have become accustomed to getting hundreds of hours of work, and the benefit of years of hard-won knowledge for free.

We’ve not merely become accustomed to it, we are entitled to it. You don’t give away your hard-earned knowledge for free, make it branchable on Github, and respond to my mails within 24 hours? Shame on you!

The ability to give time, energy and professional skills free of charge is a privilege.

I would go one step further. Receiving the result of this time, energy, and professional skills is also a privilege — a privilege that becomes an entitlement if the receiver doesn’t consider what the giver is giving up.

My strategy

And here my free essay leaves the sweeping, majestic visions of the web as a whole and focuses on the petty details of my personal situation.

I’ve been doing free content creation for more than 17 years now, and over the past year or so I’ve become convinced that I need to change my approach. This article is part of my quest for a new strategy.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I’ve pretty much stopped testing browsers, except as part of a paid job. I still publish the results for free because that’s such a huge part of my workflow — I wouldn’t know how to access my own work if it weren’t on my site, and if it’s there anyway I could just as well allow others to look over my shoulder.

There are a few things I’ll continue to do for free: writing articles like this one because it’s fun; exercising my duties as Guardian of the Viewports because I’m the world’s foremost specialist and my involvement actually makes a difference; and following the unfolding saga of the Chromia on Android because ...

Wow.

In the first draft that paragraph ended with “because nobody else cares.” Is that maybe my problem? Do I care too much about certain issues? Why wouldn’t I let Google and web developers solve the Chromium mess by themselves? I mean, no one listens to me, anyway. Why bother? (But I am going to bother with this particular topic; I already know that.)

But what about tests for SVG, or offline capabilities, or flexbox, or local storage solutions? They’re all worthy topics, but I’m not testing them for free any more.

What’s in it for me?

Enough is enough. I’ve done this for longer than most of my readers are in the industry. What’s in it for me?

One answer used to be sponsorships. For a few years my research was sponsored by several browser vendors. Unfortunately that ended, though I’m the first to admit I just didn’t do enough work in 2015.

Another answer is jobs I wouldn’t have got otherwise — I already talked about how that sounds cool, but may actually be more work than just getting jobs the regular old way.

I suppose a Kickstarter campaign could work, but this would again cost me a lot of time working on something I’m not familiar with, and even if it succeeds I’d have to start thinking about next year’s Kickstarter campaign pretty quickly. Still, this might be a solution.

I added a donation link to my site-wide footer. So far the response has been minimal, though two or three people did send me small amounts. (Thanks!) But a donation drive needs a lot of attention as well — it won’t run itself.

That’s where I stand right now. Am I going to be a free content creator, a professional content creator, or will I cease to be a content creator? Or am I maybe suffering from an extreme case of #firstworldproblems? Right now I just don’t know. Writing this article helped me disover the right questions, but not so many answers.

The only thing I know is that some sort of collective action is required. If I’d erect a paywall tomorrow I’d lose 99% of my readership, not generate enough money, and it would help no one. Each individual free content creator has the same problem. If we’d all do something at the same time, though ...

(BTW: I do not advocate paywalls, nor will I instate one. They’re the equivalent of a thermonuclear device, and I’m looking for something slightly more subtle.)

Besides, web developers would form a perfect test audience for any sort of solution. They’re heavily steeped in the free ideology, and a significant part of them has enough money to make contributions at least a few times.

We’ll see what happens next. But free content entitlement must die.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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