A recurring theme this year is the redefinition of free. I keep returning to this but I believe we are in the midst of a radical change in the way we use the internet. The internet of the nineties was free because it was mostly lightweight text-based pages and was run and written by enthusiastic pioneers. Once the content started getting more sophisticated and demanded much more work to produce, the people who produced the content needed to get paid for their work. But since free had become default the money had to be made somehow and so advertising became the solution. Now when everything is powered by extremely sophisticated advertising, lobbying and disinformation we suddenly realise that we have sold our every click, like, thought and integrity for the fleeting rewards of the "free" internet. Now the model seems to be in a process of change, except that we're not yet sure which way to go.
I can recommend an interesting angle on this in a TechCrunch article, Subscription Hell. It's about the increasing number of content providers, tools, platforms and storage services that are suddenly imposing sometimes rather hefty subscriptions for services that used to be free, or freemium services that radically reduce the scope of the free version in order to force users to go pro. The change may not seem so great from the perspective of the company but when you have become used to using a wide range of services and platforms the prospect of paying for them all can be daunting.
I’m frustrated with this hell. I’m frustrated that the web’s promise of instant and free access to the world’s information appears to be dying. I’m frustrated that subscription usually means just putting formerly free content behind a paywall. I’m frustrated that the price for subscriptions seems wildly high compared to the ad dollars that the fees substitute for. And I’m frustrated that subscription pricing rarely seems to account for other subscriptions I have, even when content libraries are similar.
News media in many countries are disappearing behind paywalls, often leaving behind as meager compensation a simplified free version where all content simply drowns in a sea of ads. I follow many news media from around the world and appreciate the opportunity to read about world news from different perspectives. If they all put up paywalls I'd have to choose which ones I am willing to subscribe to and my perspectives would be seriously narrowed. Similarly in education, I have been forced to abandon useful tools because I can't justify the new subscription cost. It's often not the individual subscription that's the problem, it's multiplying that figure by 10 or 30 or 50.
I understand that all these services cost money to produce and the people who do that work need to be paid. If the advertising and data harvesting model is flawed and must be regulated then we have to accept that a new model for financing the internet needs to be found. I pay for a few services and tools but I'm still dependent on the "free" ones. The article suggests bundles of similar services and discounts for subscribing to several. Many are also discussing the model of micro-payments based on volume of use rather than flat-rate subscriptions. With the growth of digital transactions and the increased security available this is more feasible than before. But if we want to move away from the exploitative model of today where you are the product then we have to find new ways to pay as we go. Are the days of free are drawing to a close?
Subscription hell is real, but that doesn’t mean the business model is flawed. Rather, we need to completely transform our thinking around these models, including the marketing behind them and the features that they offer. We also need to consider consumers and their wallets more holistically, since no one buys a subscription in a vacuum. For too long, paywall playbooks have just been copied rather than innovated upon. It’s time for product leaders to step up and build a better future.