Now We're Just Haggling Over the Price

May 09, 2012 by Gabe | [mmd] |

Ben Brooks writes about the failure of the advertising model for the internet. His piece was a follow up to the Technology Review article by Jason Pontin. Both are interesting reads in the context of the Atlantic article about the failure of slideshow articles.

Contractors don’t build houses for free, just so long as you look at ads on your walls for the rest of your occupancy — they charge real money, because it takes real money to build a house. So too does it take real money to write a site like this.

—Ben Brooks

Here's one problem with that analogy: There's a contract that helps to guarantee an equitable exchange between a home buyer and a builder. There is no such contract with a blogger. What exists, is a personality and hopefully consistent output of a high quality. But sponsoring future work is something that is hard to sell. I sponsor a lot of stuff on the internet. I buy memberships, give donations and buy shwag. I proselytize and promote things I believe in. I use sponsor codes and click ads. I'm a minority, but so are the people that I give my money to.

Most of the sites that consider themselves "news" are just stuttering imbeciles repeating headlines and barfing out the same tired exclusives. Really, there might be a TV made by Apple? Wow, there's going to be another iPhone? No way, electronics are made in China? Do tell. How interesting.

Back to that analogy though. If a contractor told you that the electrical was up to code, the house inspection is going to let you know if they are telling the truth. The contract is going to enforce that they live up to their end of the bargain. There's no such assurance in blogging. Is that an honest review, or is it just to push undisclosed affiliate links? Is that a true opinion of a tech startup or are you working with a VC firm backing them? Is that a real opinion or is it a sponsored post? Most sites just do not earn that kind of trust.

Later Ben also states:

However, when you stop to think about it, is it that I am being greedy for asking you to support my content — my writing — or is it that society has condition web users to be greedy by asking — no demanding — that content on the web be free for all? A race to the bottom is occurring, yet I don’t want to stop writing, but I also am not willing to write for free.

I think he has it backwards. It's a race to the top. Let's face it, a lot of the people that think they are writers,1 are not. At best, I'd call them bloggers. $25 and an internet connection doesn't bequeath the title of writer.2 My Dad used to announce newspaper headlines followed by some personal opinion. He was no analyst. What I see is that a very small fraction of people that can actually construct a meaningful narrative are rising to the top and making a living of it. Everyone else is playing a con game.

So then, are readers being greedy and demanding free content? I don't think so. Are they desensitized to true costs and value. Probably.3 Are they going to pay a hundred different bloggers to sit at home posting links and comments? Probably not. Is there a viable career somewhere in there? Probably not for most people that want it.

But here's the thing, it's not the reader's problem. It's capitalism. Provide a valuable product that is unavailable somewhere else and people will pay for it. If they don't, then I guess it wasn't valuable enough. Maybe all they think a site is worth is a split second of looking at an ad. Maybe they can find that same link or analysis on a dozen other WordPress sites.

I view this entire problem with ads as a failure to adapt. It's a failure at all levels. Ad agencies don't know how to sell things to an inundated audience. Publishers don't know how to compete without owning a market. People that write don't know how to make a living off of words when there is an instant and never ending supply of them. All of these groups depended on the old system continuing. It did not. It doesn't mean readers are doing something wrong though.

You4 don't want to write on a blog for free? Then don't. You think you should get paid directly from readers? Great, make that happen. But the only way I see this as a sea change in advertising is that consumers stop buying crap they see in ads and start giving that money directly to newspapers, bloggers, TV studios, radio stations, magazine publishers and every other producer that relies on ads for revenue. The truth is, most of that stuff is crap too. It's just that most of the time we get cheap crap for free, with ads.

  1. I'm writing here as a patron and consumer. I've said it before, I don't consider myself a writer or a publisher. Perhaps I'm an editor, but so is anyone that uses a delete key. 

  2. I am likely to catch a lot of heat over this opinion. It's my honest opinion. In an era of self proclaimed "SEO specialists", "Social Media Experts" and "Editors" many titles are meaningless. I still have an expectation for a few traditional titles. There are great writers on the internet that write for blogs. Those are not mutually exclusive. But there are also people giving themselves titles that don't fit. 

  3. Welcome to the land of Walmart. 

  4. I mean "You" in the most general sense: Anyone looking to make a living off of putting words together on a website.