The Cost of Free Content

I am a product of the technological revolution of the 1990’s that is the internet. The concept and basic framework was around long before then, but it wasn’t until the last part of the last decade of the twentieth century that the internet really started taking off as a mainstream part of our daily lives. I remember the first time I heard that iconic dialup connection tone and thinking that it was so cool that I was able to connect my computer through the phone line and see amazing things from other places right there on my monitor.

The funny thing is that while in the real world we are used to paying for the things we enjoy, free content has pretty much been a constant thing ever since the internet started. In the early days, people were so excited just to be a part of this new trend that most of us never thought to monetize what we were putting up for everyone to see. We just wanted to participate. From the very beginning I was able to find all sorts of things for free and never found a reason to pay for content.

What is crazy about all of this is that free content not only didn’t fall away as businesses and other enterprises entered the creative space…it increased exponentially. Web based advertising became a very real nuisance, especially in the form of spam. Your IP address was logged and your information was used to send you solicitous emails trying to sell you products. All the way from the beginning our personal information was used against us for the profit of big tech.

This only got worse as time went on. We bypassed the typical way that new ideas enter the market. Rather than starting out as a cool idea that eventually required payment, businesses went all in on the free content model. They understood that if they offered a basic service for free, such as video streaming, then they could draw in millions of people who would willingly trade their personal information and viewing habits in exchange for free content. As theses social media platforms grew larger and larger, they became monopolies in the virtual tech space, and still hold that iron grip today.

The problem with all of this is that while we have access to endless amounts of free videos, pictures, written content and more, the lack of healthy competition in the online media space has made it exceedingly difficult for others to make it in this new era of digital content. Setting aside individual writers such as myself or individual video creators on streaming platforms, simply establishing a brand new platform as a direct competitor is nearly impossible against massive entities like YouTube or Facebook or Twitter. Who can reasonably compete against these giants?

Where this becomes a danger is that a monopoly in any space exerts unreasonable control over those who use the product. Even though we are not required to pay for these videos or blog posts or other forms of digital entertainment, the unseen hand of the developers behind the platforms quietly monitor and filter what we see. Something as benign as the algorithm behind YouTube’s “recommended video” feature looks great on the surface, but how many new content creators are blocked from your potential viewing list because of it? How many new ideas are you missing out on because we’ve put convenience over trying new things?

The cost of all of this is two fold. First, as a reader or viewer we are blocked off from new ideas in the quest to cram as much content down our throats as possible. We don’t want to risk wasting our time on bad content, so rather than branching out and trying out new things that we might not like, we are funneled into watching or reading the same content over and over again. It’s comfortable, so we just smile and click the next video, never realizing how we’re limiting our own experience by voluntarily participating as a cog in the machine.

Second, those of us who have a desire to try to make a living as a creator are many times totally cut off from the opportunity to get noticed, not because our content isn’t good but because we don’t truly understand the inner workings of system we’re forced to participate in. I have mentioned in a previous post that I struggle with things like Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or conforming my posts to work with the soulless algorithm.

I just want to write about what I care about, but instead of being able to just put my thoughts down and focus on the quality of my writing, I have to do double duty as a marketing expert (and I’m NOT!) just to get past the new gatekeeper. The only reason this blog is growing at the rate it has been is because WordPress has a pretty good default SEO setup. Platforms like YouTube aren’t nearly so friendly to creators.

The reality is that if we want to make our internet more of an open system, we have to start moving it toward a traditional free market model. This means that we have to start moving away from these huge, faceless companies that offer us free content in exchange for our souls to smaller outfits that require direct payment. By removing our support for big tech and sacrificing a bit of capital now to bring up new competition, we can invest in the future of this amazing means of sharing information.

Competition has always been what forces us to make things better. A free price tag might feel good, but as the saying goes “you can’t get something for nothing”. These social media platforms are using you as their product, digital slaves fed with free content. If we want to break free of this bondage, we will have to make some sacrifices and take some risks. It will hurt at first and feel wrong when we can get what we want at no cost from the major players, but we will be so much better off in the end. One day we can look back on this era of the internet and wonder how we were so gullible and rejoice that we found our way to freedom.

How do you feel about free content? Is it a blessing or a curse? Is there a benefit for paying for content, or will free content continue to rule the online space? We don’t usually think about these kinds of things, but as the internet becomes more a part of our lives we must start considering how we are being used to make money in the virtual space. If we are not careful, we will look around one day and wonder how things got so bad.

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