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Does It All Want to be Free?
Apr 08, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

Last's week piece drew more mail than I've had in a long time. My rant on BigBook drew comments from readers on both sides of the fence of whether the web is an appropriate medium for a telephone directory. And I heard from a few friends who had been recruited by BigBook, only to question its business model the same way I had.

But the sentence "Isn't anyone producing content that's worth paying for?" drew the most fire. I think I've touched a nerve...

Several readers were upset by the thought of paying for content. "I pay enough for access to the web; I can't imagine paying for access to individual web sites," remarked one. Another argued that instead of paying for content, "good citizens" of the web should provide content of their own for others to consume. Hmmmm, the web as an enormous cooperative. I'm sure that's how Time Warner operates their business.

But I did hear from a few folks who believe the current model (give it away to the user, drive the hit count and charge for advertising), is in danger of collapsing. That if this trend continues, web sites will focus on creating content that exists only to drive hit counts.

When the web was young (like a year ago), the hit count model worked fairly well. The user "community" of the web was pretty easy to define -- relatively young, predominately male, well educated, and flush with disposable income. Computer geeks.

But as the net.population increases, this assumption has to be thrown out the window. As more and more folks jack in, the demographics necessarily will migrate more toward the national average, more toward the lowest common demoninator.

More toward what the average television viewer looks like. And we all know what the average television viewer likes to watch.

Contrary to popular belief, the barriers-to-entry for creating a high-impact, high-traffic web site are not low. Sure, I can publish "Stating the Obvious" every week with a couple of hours of free time and a text editor. But I'm not generating the content (or the hit counts, or the advertiser revenue) like HotWired or Word or Salon. Great-looking (and sounding and moving and jumping) web-sites, with compelling content takes people. Bright people, educated people, literate people, net.aware people. And those type of people are expensive. Very expensive.

And ad dollars are necessarily a limited resource.

So here's my doomsday scenario. If web sites continue to be supported solely by ad revenue, and the demographics of the average web surfer trends toward that of the television viewer, we're going to end up with just a few major sites that produce television-quality content (albeit with fancy graphics, sound, moving images, etc.) in order to attract the hits.

This depresses me. But it looks like there are two ways out.

A friend wrote to me after last week's piece that "the net [needs to] find a way to provide value to advertisers. If it can't, advertiser bucks won't back it." And what is of value to advertisers? User demographics. The web will provide value to advertisers when it can tell them not only how many people visit sites, but what they look like. And not just how old they are, where they live and how much money they make. But also what kind of car they drive, what brand of orange juice they drink and what type of birth control they use. The problem is that while this advanced user demographics could potentially help broaden the scope of advertising dollars distributed to "niche" sites, it scares the living daylights out of most long time netizens, not to mention civil libertarians.

The other obvious way out is through subscription-based content. Now, your grandmother probably isn't going to be able to charge you to visit her home page. Unless, of course, your grandmother is Esther Dyson. But publishers that have valuable content for small (or large) audiences will look at the web as just another distribution medium, and charge appropriately for their information. Is Dyson's Release 1.0 newsletter any less valuable when it is published on the web instead of on paper?

John Perry Barlow can scream "information wants to be free" until he's blue in the face, but it seems to me that the web publishers are going to realize that they can't give everything away if they want to stay in business. And web surfers are going to wake up from their collective dream of free 15-minute delayed quotes, and realize that there is information out there that is worth their hard earned dollar. That the web can be more than just a television wannabe.



Other pieces about ecommerce: