Thursday, September 30, 2010

Words Less Valuable Than Spreadable Cheese


When I signed up for Scribd about a month and a half ago, I had no idea that, two months from when I uploaded material to the document-sharing site, that it would be “archived” and that I’d have to pay to see it again.

Oh, I’m sure in the esoteric license agreement or other such mumbo-jumbo that I didn’t read but agreed to anyway that the paywall after two months was mentioned. But really, my first inkling of any such paywall comes from this article.

I have to admit I’m not willing to pay to read my own stuff.

That’s terribly worrying, because it’s probably a sign that nobody else will want to pay, either.

Has it come to this? Have we really entered a world where the written word has less value than, as Stanley Bing puts it so eloquently, a roll of paper towels?
There are circumstances under which I'm more than willing to pay for a commodity. Paper towels.  Spreadable cheese. A piece of research I can get nowhere else on the dangers of not changing your socks. But the idea of registering myself and logging in every time I want to get the weather or a recipe or the random musings of somebody like me... I don't think so.
Yes, there’s the popular cow analogy, as put succinctly by one of Bing’s commenters:
Why buy a cow? 'Cause you can make nice steak and 'burgers out of it. It's the bovine final product, a.k.a. "bullsh...t" that is free of charge. And since there are [sic] plenty of that around, just go to the place that will shovel it to you for free. No need to huff and puff, even if you do hate selling that product you are selling. Just keep repeating in your mind: "exceed the quota - get the bonus".
In other words: A lot of the stuff on the web is free for a reason. There’s a reason I don’t charge for reading the drivel on this blog.

But there are business decisions to be made. I’d much rather be a WordPress blogger, as that system has the added features and flexibility I’d like to use in a blog. But since you have to pay for your own hosting with WordPress, I’ll stick with Blogger. It’s free. If I suddenly had to pay per blog, you’d certainly see me bid a quick goodbye to my ancillary sites and, if the cost were too dear, this blog as well.

It’s a business conundrum. Hosting all of this garbage isn’t cheap. Over at Uncharted, for example, it’s a problem for us, and we’ve got next to nothing stored on our servers (for which we pay monthly) compared to the big dogs on the social media spectrum. Maybe it costs Scribd less than a nickel a month to store my 187-page manuscript, but you know what, multiply that by tens of thousands of people storing their documents, and you can see why Scribd wants and needs to charge for its services in order to stay afloat. They’re in the business of business, though the pity is most web users out there think businesses ought to be in the business of charity, passing over everything they produce for free, simply because it’s on the web.

Please pass the Cheez Whiz. For free, preferably.

1 comment:

carl g said...

I understand your frustration, and I've said recently myself that I am rarely willing to pay just to read something, because there is rarely the need to. But I'm spending more to read now than I have for years. So I wonder, are words really worth less now than in the past? What if they are Jonathan Franzen's or J.K. Rowling's words?

Our household reading-related spending (books plus internet) has probably never been higher than right now, if you exclude past educational spending. This past month, buying the Kindle, it probably surpassed $250 for the month. Plus I viewed many hundreds of ads, which I consider a form of payment. In all this, someone somewhere is being paid something for their writing by me.

Because I am somewhat anti-capitalist, I tend to interpret the fundamental problem you pose as entirely one of markets. No product, words or cheese spread, has any inherent value. Value is not created by production, but by scarcity relative to demand. If as many people were producing cheese spread as are now publishing words, you likewise could not give 99.9999% of it away.

But I think more superlative writing is published today than ever. Same for photography, and music, and film, and even TV. All media, across the board. It is an unimaginable golden age. I'd be surprised if you didn't feel the same.

Anyway, I think things like P2P and open source will continue to drive hosting services and other tech companies into oblivion. They shift costs directly onto users and non-profit developers, and they are costs both are very willing to bear. I think P2P is the perfect distribution model. Everyone pays for what they consume by sharing the costs of distribution. Scribd and such, ultimately, just cannot compete with P2P. They are all running on fumes. The only thing that is saving them now is the immaturity of P2P.