Digital Content: To pay or not to pay

In the digital age, consumers are very used to getting apps and online content for free.

I was listening to a free Joe Rogan Podcast on YouTube recently (irony intended). He was interviewing Sam Harris, who likewise has a very popular podcast. They were discussing their respective business models.

Rogan uses an ad-based model, so his show is funded predominantly by sponsors. Harris uses more of a PBS model where you can access much of his content for free, and if you enjoy it you can subscribe to his website and pay.

Harris noted an overall trend with digital content:

You have Facebook on the one hand, which is just a totally free platform where the users don’t even realize that they’re not the customers, that they’re the actual product, right? The users are having their attention sold to advertisers, and it’s this enormous business. And on the other end of the digital spectrum you have Netflix, which is just a stark paywall, right, and there’s no way in but to pay the subscription […] I’m hoping just generally speaking that the digital future looks a lot more like Netflix and much less like Facebook.

I’ve written about the terms of service free platforms such as Facebook foist upon their users, so this discussion piqued my interest right away.

Harris also noted that if Rogan were to release his next stand-up special on Netflix, people would understand why he wouldn’t just post it for free on Youtube, but:

If you did something slightly different, but functionally the same, if you put it on Vimeo and charged people $5, or whatever, Vimeo on demand, I think you’d get a lot more pain. People would say ‘(expletive) you, you greedy bastard, if you’re already doing great, just release your stuff’. And I view that as a problem, it’s like a psychological problem, people have been anchored to the ad-subsidized model more or less everywhere, and they expect everything for free. In my world, I’m trying to continually brook that expectation and push people into a different sense of ‘you get what you pay for’.

Their discussion is interesting and much more in-depth than the focus of this article, but Harris raises a good point here.

Recently, I made two small app purchases that I feel were worthwhile. I didn’t have to pay for either of them.

The first app purchase was for the weather app I use on my phone - it was to remove the ads. I use this app all the time, and I felt the ads were slowing it down. It was about $4 and I am very happy with this decision.

The second purchase was for the paid version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary app (also on my phone). It is almost the exact same as the free version, except it keeps track of the words you search. That way you can come back to the words you’ve recently searched and have multiple exposures to their meanings, versus reading a definition once, then promptly forgetting the word and the definition. I am not at all apoplectic about this decision (one of my recently searched words).

While I could have used the free version of both these apps, I made a decision that it was in my best interest to pay for them. These are services I find to be of value.

I started wondering what the world would be like if Facebook itself was a subscription model, rather than the ad-based model it currently employs. What if people paid a monthly fee to use Facebook, they weren’t served ads, and they had actual ownership and control over the content they posted? Wouldn’t this solve many of the societal problems that social media has created?

If Facebook were using the subscription model, it would be much more difficult for foreign adversaries to influence domestic elections. People susceptible to believing nonsense would no longer be micro-targeted advertisements containing misinformation because their data would not be harvested by or sold to third parties, and because they wouldn't be served ads at all on the platform.

I don’t really believe that Facebook or any of its ad-based peers will ever do this of their own volition, because that business model has been extremely lucrative for them. However, if regulators ever want to get serious about data privacy and protecting western democratic values, this may be something to think about.

By Rick Sturch

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