Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Free? In What Sense Free?

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 02, 1998

Posted to HotWired 3 Mar 98

Jon Katz seems to be labouring under the illusion that my access to Slate, Hotwired, and their ilk is, somehow, free. Let me correct this small illusion.

In fact, my habit of web-wandering is one of the most expensive addictions I have ever had. To start off, I must pay for my computer, roughly $2000 Cdn., then more memory, a new hard drive, a better Soundblaster, etc., until I was net-ready.

Then I purchased a telephone account for $25 (plus about a hundred bucks installation), plus internet access ($30 per month plus install), then I set about obtaining software. My copy of Windows 95 (happily, only the upgrade) cost me $150, Netscape retailed at $60 (though I avoided that by routinely updating beta versions), so on and so forth.

In order to learn to to use and appreciate all this equipment, I purchased a number of books and magazines, including, monthly, the dead tree version of Wired.

But Jon Katz seems to believe I am accessing content for free, that I am somehow sponging off the good folks at Microsoft, and that if I don't support Slate financially, it is I, and not the content provider, who is to blame.

Sorry Jon, I don't buy it (and I won't buy it), for a number of reasons.

First, there is a lot of very good and very free content out there. Some of it I provide (specifically, a Guide to the Logical Fallacies, the Brand on Pages, and a significant On-line Education resource). Most of it others provide in the same spirit of sharing that I do.

And the fact that my information is provided for free does not in any way indicate that it is of inferior quality, any more than the fact that Time charges for its material is any guarantee that the magazine serves as something more than litter box liner.

Second, there are alternative ways of paying for web content. As mentioned in a previous post, website advertisements are one way. True, perhaps, you can't make a bundle, especially if you don't have the hits. But why should you need to make a bundle? It's only if you bloat your operation prior to counting a single hit that you run into problem. However, if you follow the tried-and-true business model of keeping costs lower than revenues, then you'll be fine.

And this isn't a question of whether or not advertising works. We know it works. It supports items as varied as a global cable news network, newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, concerts in the park, and sporting events. On the net advertising has been less successful - but could that be because of the time and cost required in order to gain access? Wouldn't the net be a more financially viable medium if it was cheaper, not more expensive?

Third, there is significant incentive to provide free content on the internet; this incentive drives companies like Microsoft and Netscape to provide significant internet presences. And it is: the desire for internet content leads people to buy their products. Absolutely nobody would buy Netcsape if there were nothing to see; RealAudio would be vapourware were there nothing to hear, and the many hundreds of thousands of computer systems purchased in the last year would be useless to their owners were the net not a vast font of information. Bill Gates to the contrary notwithstanding, most people don't need or want productivity software.

Fourth, the internet provides an outstating resource for business. keep in mind, again, that we, as users, pay to access it. But now companies such as Microsoft, Sun, Netscape, and a host of others, have a means of sending me mail directly, offering new product information, providing customer support, at savings so large that this amount of information distribution would be inconceivable were I not willing to cough up the thousands of bucks necessary to gain access.

You say we should pay for access to them? Hah! They should pay us!

Let us even look at a site like Hotwired (which, btw, I will not pay for - and if they charge me for access to Hotwired, I'll stop reading the magaize too!).

Hotwired is the best promotion for Wired the company could get. By fostering interaction and communication between a certain set of net-geeks, Hotwired fosters the sense of community so vital to the continued survival of a publication such as Wired.

Additionally, the Howtired site - potentially, at least, depending on how well their geeks grok code - can return a significant amount of demographic information about a certain segment of their population. Translation: they can charge more for ads in their magazine, because they can point to web stats and say, "Look! 60 percent of our viewers are interested in this type of product."

Hotwired also allows new businesses and products to showcase themselves. That's what RGB and Dream Jobs are about. "Look at us!" they call out, enticing us into new frontiers of technology. And we follow because we love that stuff - otherwise we wouldn't be here. What better marketing!

And finally, the existence of Hotwired gives people a good reason to buy Microsoft products. Again, I would never have purchased Windoze 95 unless I needed to run the new RealMedia client which I needed to listen to HotSeat. Microsoft shouldn't merely invest in Hotwired. It should give Hotwired money and say "Thanks!"

A previous poster got it right. Why would on-line ventures follow the tired business model of dead tree publishers? We have a new world here, with new economic realities. It's not broadcasting any more. Websites, far from posing a barrier to access, are, in general, begging for hits.

The edge on-line belongs to consumers, not broadcasters, because now we can choose whether or not to view the site. It used to be you chose from one of three networks, a couple of radio stations, a couple of papers, and magazines. Not we have millions of options. Why on earth we we opt for the one percent that charges us more money?

Finally, the existence of the net shows that good authors, journalists, or commentators are not nearly as rare as previously supposed. And that, indeed, most of them have their positions by virtue of opportunity rather than skill. There is very little - if anything - to choose between Slate and a gadzillion free sites. Sure, Slate may be very good. But so are the others.

And that's my media rant for today, provided for free, and I daresay, of no less quality than Katz's. Hm?

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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