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  • Writer's pictureBart Melton

Why you should WANT to pay (a trivial amount) for content online.

For the last 2 decades, the primary business model for online content providers, whether large newspapers or small vloggers, has been ad based revenue. The reality is that this model is just bad. It is bad for businesses and bad for consumers, lose-lose. The only people winning are the ad companies.

For users, ads are constantly being made more and more intrusive in their profiling techniques and reach. You have a dozen stalkers following every little thing you do. Every link you click online is recorded and profiled. Your smartphone listens to your conversations, even when it isn't in use, such that you get ads for something you said once in a face-to-face conversation that you never even searched on. Creepy doesn't begin to cover it.

For businesses, ad revenues have been dropping for years. On top of the drop in revenue because ads are paying less, the use of ad-blockers has exploded in the last few years due to privacy concerns, lowering revenue even more.

For large media companies, this has had stark effects. Companies produce more and more content with clickbait headlines that should have been a tweet. It isn't because these companies necessarily want to do this, they have to in order to keep the lights on. This in turn has a very negative affect on society as the faux outrage needed to generate clicks has carried over into increased polarization of society.

This has also led to increased media consolidation as smaller outlets increasingly get squeezed out of business or into selling out to larger organizations. Even the largest organizations have faced large layoffs, even before the pandemic. Organizations that are on the brink of financial disaster face the threat of a buyout by private equity groups that will stripmine it for every penny they can with even lower quality content before ultimately destroying the business.

For small businesses and individual creators, we see that there is a 1% who are wildly successful, and everyone else who spends 50 hours a week to essentially make beer money. Whether you are on YouTube, Instagram, or running a blog, if you don't have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers, you can't make a living. This too leads to low quality clickbait content or outrageous and dangerous acts to try to climb the social media landscape.

The recent trend of large media moving more content behind subscription paywalls and newsletter subscriptions such as substack are not going to change the landscape. The reality is that very few can afford 100 subscriptions per month. What that means is that the limited money that people have for subscriptions will mostly float up to the largest media organizations and already successful content creators. You still end up with a 1% and everyone else with almost nothing in between.

On top of that, most of us don't want a subscription to most things. We discover content through social media. That means that we read an article here, view a video there, and listen to a podcast from somewhere else. Few of us get enough value from a single website to justify the cost of a single subscription.

That being said, we are going to see more and more content move behind subscription paywalls over the next year or two. In 2022, browser makers will turn off 3rd party cookies. This will be a major blow to the targeted advertising industry. All of the businesses that depend on ad revenue will feel the pinch much more drastically. Over the course of 2021, you will see more and more contently slowly move behind paywalls as businesses try to avoid a sudden shift to a full paywall.

What will that mean for access to information? Should we just accept that information will become a luxury item only available to the well off? Is that what we want for society?

What about donations? In 2020, less than 2% of accounts on Patreon even made the minimum wage. Subscriptions and donations have the same problems. People have limited money and few can afford to contribute to all of the sites that they use. The result is that you get one or two percent of the users paying, which is not enough to sustain businesses at any level.

We need a 3rd way. For everyone to pay a tiny amount, known as micropayments. If everyone pays $0.01 or $0.05 or even a little more depending on the content, then businesses earn significantly more than they currently do with ads and subscriptions combined. Like individual snowflakes build to an avalanche, trivial payments by thousands or millions of users results in a dramatic increase in revenues for businesses. For small businesses, such as bloggers, it means that they can earn a decent living with only a few thousand readers. For example, a blogger who posts once per week with 10,000 users and charges $0.10 will earn $1000 per week, $52k per year. At the same time, all of those users will have only spent $5.20 in the entire year. For a large business with a million viewers and charging $0.01-0.05, they can earn tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per day while each individual user is only paying a few cents each.

It is better for users as well. At $0.01-0.5 for most content, users can easily get a month of content for $10-15, maybe even less. That is what, maybe 5 subscriptions? $10-15 per month is something that is affordable for almost everyone. $0.01-0.05 is certainly affordable to everyone. If everyone pays a little bit, nobody pays a lot and that keeps access to information available to everyone.

On top of being affordable, users can get at least some of their privacy back. If you are being asked to pay for content, then you shouldn't be the product yourself via ads. Businesses can provide an ad-free experience. Your phone might still be spying on you, but your newspaper won't be.

Lastly, when businesses earn more money, they are able to produce higher quality content. They can hire more reporters, more staff, more special effects personnel for that cool indie short film developer. They can also stop publishing robo-written, clickbait headline, faux outrage news articles for click bait. Society itself will benefit from that lowering of the political and cultural temperature.

Online content is in many ways in a death spiral. The current ad-based business model is a parasitic relationship that is dying. Subscriptions and donations burden the few, while still being unable to sustain the industry. The end result of both is bad for users, bad for society, and just bad business.

If we all pay a trivial amount, what we end up with is a win-win business model. Businesses earn more, hire more, and produce better content. Users get better content and get their privacy back at a price that everyone can afford. That is a positive spiral that can be built upon.

As users, we have all been conditioned to expect content to be free. We are naturally aghast when someone suddenly suggests that we need to start paying for what was free. We need to "get over it". The reality is that it was never free. You paid with your privacy. What you should be asking yourself is "is this content AND my privacy worth $0.01 or $0.05?" and "do I really care about spending $0.01 as long as it is fast and easy?".

We should WANT to pay a trivial amount for content. We need to start demanding it now. Change takes time to happen. Change is happening now. If we don't speak up now and direct that change, one day very soon, we are going to wake up and find that all of the content we want is inside of a walled garden and we can't afford the price of admission.

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