The price of free information

Two years ago I donated $3 to Wikipedia. I like Wikipedia and it is often my first stop when looking for information. I use this online encyclopedia so often it even earned the endearing nickname of Auntie Wiki, who often hangs out with Uncle Google. But last year, I got a strange email from them.

They pleaded with me to donate again. I chose not to respond to the email. So I got another one. The subject line read “Hana — Let’s end it.” And something about that click-bait strategy got under my skin. And it got me thinking…

The original idea of the Internet was that it would be the ultimate democracy tool, with all the information being available to everybody, for free. No power play, no restrictions, no regulations. And along with many ideals and ideologies that came before, the ultimate democracy that is the Internet has proved itself to be flawed.

The catch is that nothing is free. Everything cost the most scarce of currencies — our time. Writing an article takes time. Writing a well-researched article takes even more time. And as your audience is used to getting high quality service from you, you need to make sure you can deliver. And that costs time, AND money.

Which is why Wikipedia started raising money for its operation years after it was launched, in fact admitting that it could not live up to its own, “for free” philosophy.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to pay for the information I get from Wikipedia, after all I consult it at least once a week. It’s just that I wish they didn’t have to beg. And that because of the Wikipedia precedent, people trying to make money from their expertise online would not have to justify why their information costs money.

I did email Wikipedia last year. In my very polite message I explained how I value their work, and the work of the thousands of people who contribute to the amazing project that is Wikipedia — the Encyclopedia Britannica of the digital age. And that maybe, just maybe, they could try a different strategy. A subscription structure similar to what the New York Times has. The way it works is you have a certain number of articles that you can read with no strings attached. This would adequatly cover those who use Wiki sporadically. And once you reach that limit, you pay a small fee for access.

My idea was refused, and frankly, I didn’t expect anything else. And so this year again, I got a message, and this time it read “Hana — I am stunned.”

Why does this bother me you ask? Because no information is for free and everything comes at a price. The person putting that information online has to eat. Has to pay for their Internet connection. Their boss has to pay for whatever they have to pay for. And if the audience is used to getting information for free, the money has to come from somewhere other than the audience.

You guessed it, advertising. And the more people see an article, the more impact an ad is going to have and the more advertisers are going to pay. So, the sexier your content, the more money you make, right?

I don’t need to tell you where this logic leads. We are seeing it everywhere: fake news, hyped-up scientific research (yes, scientists found out that a bunch of cells react to a substance, but that does not mean we found a cure for death), click-bait titles with numbers in them (17 things you didn’t know about caterpillars!), and videos that say “you won’t believe what happened next” and/or “what you’ll see will change your life forever”. And sadly, quality investigative journalism is going dry, because a) it’s usually quite down to earth and b) their information is instantly repackaged, face-lifted and offered for free by everybody else.

And it’s not just news that has been infected with the (not so)free infodisease. Teaching online is another casualty.

Marketing experts, such as Brendon Burchard, will tell you to give the best of your information for free to lure people in. And so online experts do. People love free things, right? So give it to them, make them like you and maybe later, if you’re lucky, about 1% (the usual “conversion rate”, aka the percentage of your audience who actually buys your product) will buy your product.

The result is masses and masses of free online tutorials on how to do almost anything, from painting your nails the right shade of blue to putting together an airplane. Well, maybe not the latter, I admit I have not Googled it yet.

And then there are companies selling stuff who will freely educate the consumer on how to use said stuff. Obviously with a bias — they want you to buy their stuff, so they will teach you how to use their stuff, in a way that works best for them. But the teaching is for free. Advertising masquerading as education.

Oh, not to forget Facebook. Ask and you shall be answered — by a crowd of people you decided to trust. A bunch of strangers on the Internet, some of whom you know, some you don’t, most with not much more experience in the field of the inquiry than you have. But the information is free (and so are the arguments).

Would any of this be possible pre-internet? Would anyone expect say an evening-school teacher to give you a 10-minute sample lesson of French conversation for free? Would anyone shout into a train station foyer “hey, does anyone know what helps with teething” or “Essential oils for restless leg syndrome — GO!”? 
 And would anyone expect Encyclopedia Britannica to cost nothing?

I don’t know, I may donate to Wikipedia this year. And after I do, I will go back to designing a free mini-course, hoping that our conversion rate will make it to at least 1.5%.

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