Money and the Net
AOL has just announced that it's going to put Time/Warner content on the net, and make it available exclusively to AOL users. Since there's been little progress in making money off of content (just ask the people with stock in Salon, to name one of the still solvent content providers who'll never turn a profit), they've decided to leverage their content to get more people using AOL for internet access and to make money that way. This doesn't bother me, since there's so much other content on the net available for free and there are only two companies that could make this play with any chance of success (AOL and MS). I'm guessing that it'll help AOL a little but not a whole lot.
As another way to make money off of content, I've noticed the NY Times and a bunch of magazines that previously made their archives available for free now charge to download articles. Again, this doesn't bother me. It's their content, they can do what they want. Though I doubt that they'll make much money. Slate became a subscriber only site for a while, then switched back when no one subscribed. I see the magazines going through the same thing when they realize that people like me who read old articles on a lark aren't willing to pay for them.
What this all amounts to is a desperate attempt to make money off of content other than porn, and I'm hoping it doesn't succeed. Let me explain.
Right now, the companies who sell internet access couldn't care less what I or you look at. They get their money whether you read big influential newspapers, little influential magazines, or bored liberals with nothing better to do. We're all the same to them. If someone comes up with a universal way to make money off of readership, this will all change. Suddenly, there will be big money for the presumably best sites with the highest readerships and even bigger money for those who figure out how to drive readers to sites regardless of how good they are. This would completely change the rules of the game.
For several years now, people have been predicting a future internet model based on micro-payments. Essentially, every time you went to a site you would pay it some tiny amount of money. Big sites would have a lot to gain. Little sites would still get something for their effort. Even though this would make me a few bucks, I think it would lead to real trouble. Once people got paid for clicks, there would be massive attempts to game the system for maximum profit. Popups, of course, would become even more ubiquitous, but that wouldn't be the real problem.
The shit would really hit the fan when companies like AOL and Microsoft figured out that the easiest way to drive traffic to their sites was to restrict access to everyone else's (and don't think micro-payments or something similar wouldn't lead to exactly this). It wouldn't always have to be a total block of sites, although that would be a possibility. First, the internet providers who also make content would rework their servers so that their customers accessed their content way faster than they could access anything else. Then they would start bribing Google and the other search engines to give them preference, the easiest way would be simply to list every hit for a paying customer ahead of every one for a non-payer (which would mean goodbye to being the #1 hit for my name on google), then you could eventually drop the non-payers completely on the grounds that no one clicks on them anyway.
If this weren't enough, the ISPs would then start cross-licensing each other (AOL and MSN giving each other preferential access, etc). Soon enough, what websites you could access (and how easily) would depend on who your ISP was, with the thousand or so paying sites being accessible to all and the rest of us not. Most people wouldn't mind so much, since all the stuff they were looking for (sports scores, stock quotes, naked pictures of Britney Spears) would still be accessible. You'd still be able to play games online. You just wouldn't see any non-approved or non-paying sites.
The people who did mind wouldn't always have a choice (there are still big chunks of this country with only one or two ISPs). They also wouldn't have a voice, since the big media would be the real winners in all this.
Of course, you'd be able to set up a blog or webpage through MSN or AOL, but I'm sure it wouldn't be free. You'd also have to watch what you say, they do have community standards to uphold. You may think that my blog wouldn't be worth blocking. It wouldn't be, but all of them combined would be (that's millions of hits a day). Those bloggers who played along would be allowed to operate (for a price). Those who wouldn't, wouldn't. If someone really popular didn't play ball, I'm sure that AOL could find someone willing to imitate his style for a nice salary.
Who would stop this? Would the big media conglomerates (who'd stand to make millions) raise a fuss? Would Congress step in, and interfere with the free market? [and it would still be as free as broadcasting is right now]. Would the Rehnquist Court rule against a few companies just trying to make a buck? Sure, new ISPs would open that promised free access, but they would be easy to buy out or marginalize (imagine if those 1,000 most popular sites stopped being accessible from certain ISPs or if the XBOX and PCs couldn't play online through those same ISPs).
I'm guessing that if we ever institute a system by which sites get paid for every reader without subscriptions, that'll be the end of the web as we know it. It'd just be a matter of time before the internet was a bunch of sheep looking at the pretty pictures brought to you by Chevrolet and Time/Warner.
Who's gonna prove me wrong?