Monday, October 26, 2009

Yet Another Strong Argument Against Free


In this capitalistic society, that’s what it comes down to. Yes, there’s room for altruism. Charity. Benevolence. And the ever-present Internet handout. But until web hosting services offer their products for free, programmers program for free, and my home mortgage lender calls me to say, hey, you’re such a great guy and all, you know that money you owe us, forget it; money is still something we need.

Even on the Internet.

Especially on the Internet.

I confess to being a freeloader. I’ve enjoyed, for example, catching “King of the Hill,” “The Goode Family,” and “Cosmos” over at for the past several years. I don’t pay for cable television and the reception from our rabbit ears is so fuzzy on our local channels we didn’t even bother getting one of those nifty conversion boxes when they were all the rage. So watching television on the Internet is just about the only way I get it, barring the occasional random visit to my in-laws, who pay for cable.

Now it looks like hulu is going to start charging for content.

And that’s a relief.

Because I, too, am in the Internet business, over at, where I have the opportunity to write and take photographs, two things I enjoy doing. I’d be most happy to be paid to do so, but right now Uncharted isn’t making any money, so the checks aren’t coming.

Chadwick Maltin makes a good case against “free” Internet over at The Big Money (link here):

The Internet has grown far too mature for us to continue to expect handouts. It’s time we grow up and understand we’re going to have to pay for things we really love once they become successful. We’re getting too old to expect to crash on our friends’ couches without paying rent. If we leave a tip, maybe they’ll even take the product placement off the cushions.
A lot of noise is made that the business model for music, for the newspaper industry, is broken, and that the business models for other industries is on the shakes. The Internet model isn’t all that great either. You need massive numbers of eyeballs to make advertising do anything more than occasionally shoot you over a $100 check ever six months or so. And the only other business model I see in the sites I visit include swag stores, but you know you can only own so many t-shirts and coffee mugs before that market is saturated as well.

Maybe Rupert Murdoch (and our local Post Register newspaper) are right: Why not make people pay for the stuff they used to pay for before the Internet gave them everything for free?

We’re having this discussion – in a baby-stepping way – at Uncharted. Not even a year out of the box and we’re having server space issues, and no money coming in to pay for it. Do we go the Flickr route, allowing minimal content uploads a month unless folks want to pay a minimal fee for more space? The more I think about it, the more it appeals to me. It doesn’t have to be a massive amount of money. Flickr charges $25 a year for unlimited photo uploads. That’s just over $2 a month. Maybe that does weed out the individuals who don’t want to shell out money to upload more than eight or ten photos a month (the limit on Flickr’s free accounts). But doesn’t that appeal to the photographer who really wants to share stuff, who looks at Flickr as a digital, cloud-computing database where he or she can store and access photos anywhere. Would I pay $25 a year to back up all of the photos I’ve taken of Oregon, the Idaho deserts, my children, and such? Not yet. But maybe, in the future, I’ll be convinced to do so.

So why not Uncharted users? Working at what you do with a passion that would drive you to do thing for free is great, but it’s even greater if you can do what you do passionately and get paid for it as well.

Maltin includes an interesting caveat in his statement: “once they become successful.” Obviously, charging up front for what Uncharted offers now would be counterproductive. We’ve got to develop and cultivate our audience, then go for their pocketbooks and billfolds.

But it’s a careful balancing act. We have to be sure we’re providing what the readers want, not only in content, but in the social networking experience we’re trying to build. Alan Mutter, over at the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, has this to say about failed attempts by journalists to turn passion into online profitability (the blog is at, look for the Oct. 6 entry, no direct link):

The content has to match the medium. The journalists for the most part luxuriated in writing the kinds of articles on their websites that they luxuriated in writing for the newspaper. Neither of the sites leveraged the power of the web to weave social networks, enable users to personalize content or do any of the other things that consumers commonly expect from a modern interactive experience.

The first business of a business is business. Like so many entrepreneurs, the journalists started their websites so they could do the work they wanted to do. But a business, especially a start-up, requires far more than passion for the work. It requires close attention to the nuts and bolts of raising money, making sales and controlling expenses. Above all else, it requires the discipline of living within your means until the business grows healthy enough to fund your aspirations.

The start-up news sites failed for fundamentally the same reasons the Rocky [Mountain News] did. People felt the universe would reward them for doing what they wanted to do, instead of doing what they needed to do to earn the patronage of readers and advertisers.
So we have to listen to our audience. Intently. And realize that for the one person we get communicating with us, there are 20 lurkers. That’s scary, because who knows what they want?

We also have to figure out what people would pay for. I do that a lot. Facebook? If the price were right. I kind of like the one-stop shopping option for keeping up with family and casual acquaintances. Twitter? Maybe not; if I want to keep abreast with my friends, it’s Facebook, and with multi-level-marketers, all I have to do is open the front door and shout “Can someone sell me some shampoo!” and they all come a-running. YouTube? For some of it. For Last of the Summer Wine, Keeping Up Appearances and other such shows, probably. For LOL Cats and the Fail Blog? Not so much. Some stuff on the Internet, obviously, deserves to be free.

No comments: