When Consumers Are Not Clients

Michael Wagner made some interesting points about the true cost of “free media” on the web. The basic reminder that “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” (TANSTAAFL) is important on the web, since we’re always giving something up, from our attention (on ad-supported sites) to our private demographic information (eg. with “free” Facebook quiz applications).

It’s an especially good point that there’s a difference between the consumers of these media products and the clients of the media companies. This isn’t really new, though. What’s really happened is that as each new medium has become mainstream, it’s become a medium for sales as well as communicating news. Originally it was all verbal–town criers screaming out news, peddlers shouting out to persuade buyers. Then much later it was print media, which only caught on when enough people learned to read. Newspapers have been funded by advertising for many years. The small fee we pay to buy a newspaper is largely a token to prove to advertisers that we’re actually reading the paper. It’s the advertisements that pay for bulk of the paper itself–the journalists, the editors, the photographers, the physical location, the printing itself, and the distribution costs.

The same goes for TV programming, and now the model has moved online. The only major difference is that with newspapers and TV, we were a captive audience. Now the fight for consumers’ attention has intensified, in part because of media saturation, but also because we have so many options to fight back. The fact that we can install ad blockers is part of that fight, just as is the ability to fast forward through commercials.

But the other problem is that it’s still a young medium, and the harder advertisers fight for our attention with pop-ups and messages flying across windows, the more desensitized we become. The ads have become more obnoxious but click-through rates have continued to drop steadily. This is in part because, with sites deriving all of their revenue from ads, they have a continual incentive to encourage their users to be distracted by them.

And that’s not infinitely sustainable. However, I disagree with Michael’s assertion that paid models are the right way to go. What really makes sense is what has become increasingly standard across the web: the freemium model, where the basic essential service of a web site is offered for free, but users can sign up for premium services. Often those services are more business-oriented, or simply give the user an ad-free experience.

It’s essential on the web because we’ve gone beyond channel surfing: it’s not just cheap to switch web pages like TV channels, it’s actually hard for users to stay focused on a single web page for any length of time because there are a practically infinite number of other web pages that can waste our time.

Finally, Wagner makes a good point about how news media are driven by what will attract more viewership for their advertising, rather than what is truly newsworthy. Michael Jackson’s passing is arguably an example of this, with stories about the (admittedly highly influential) pop icon bumping out important political news. But this has also always been true to some degree: newspapers publish stories that sell papers. And just as before, some of us choose to buy papers and magazines that cover stories of real merit. It’s a kind of addendum to the freemium model, that rare sites such as the Wall Street Journal offer such perceived value to a wealthier audience, that they’ve succeeded while requiring a paid subscription from the beginning.

In the meantime, the unlettered masses watch stories about Britney Spears, and enter private data into “fun quizzes” as red blinking airplanes fly across the screen urging them to “click now!’