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How we are all paying the price for free digital media


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Opening up a website only to see that the content for which you were searching is both not what you were promised by the headline and buried under a filthy swamp of advertising is something that’s become depressingly common in the 21st Century.

Yet an advertising model has become how a vast number of websites now choose to monetise their content. When you grace these websites, you do so without paying a penny. It’s an arrangement we’ve become all too accustomed to. All our beloved social media sites operate this way: Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all sell ads, or more specifically, they sell your attention to advertisers. As a result, they get to monetise their site, advertisers get to show off their product and you get free content. Everyone wins! Right? In theory, but it's all a bit more complicated than that.

Of course, advertisements only fulfill their purpose if they draw eyeballs. They need to be put on content that enjoys a high turnover of viewers, readers or listeners alike. There is much to be said against aligning commercial interests with the fleeting acquisition of clicks in this way. Principally, it’s certainly a not a recipe for engaging content, rather it’s a formula for sensationalism and clickbait. Everybody hates these misleading practices, yet there seems to have grown a silent consensus that it’s simply the price we must pay for free material.

Image Credit: kreatikar // Pixabay

The advertiser model doesn’t only incentivise deceptive content but also gives it a free pass, leaving consumers with no recourse. We pay for ‘free’ online content not with our cash but with our attention. When you click on a dodgy tabloid article you’re not paying with pounds from your bank account but seconds from your life. The technical lack of an exchange shields publishers from any claim of defrauding consumers. So until we commodify time itself, it seems they will continue to act with impunity. Accordingly, sensationalism has become a real problem on many online platforms. Take the example of YouTube, a website on which ad revenue rules. To say clickbait is rife would be a huge understatement. Worse still, on YouTube you don’t even know you’ve been clickbaited until the damage is done, as the ads roll before the video even plays. If engaging content is the goal then YouTube is the case study of backwards incentives, rewarding the accrual of large volumes of transient attention at the expense of smaller volumes of sustained attentiveness through meaningful content and a recurring viewer base.

Moreover, for the consumer, the ubiquity of the advertiser model has taught us to expect everything for free. It’s instilled us with an instinctual hostility to the paywalls that often ring-fence quality content. Yet many of the world’s most popular and valued services lie behind paywalls. Netflix and Spotify are perhaps the two most notable examples. In these cases a subscription model holds these firms accountable. In contrast with the advertiser-based free-for-alls seen on other platforms, subscriptions give both parties something to lose, the power of self interest binding them together in a mutual trust. It’s the antithesis of the incentive structure one finds on a platform such as YouTube, where neither consumer nor producer has anything to lose but everything to gain. No doubt most people know this through experience. Yet our aversion to paid digital content remains. What this does show us, though, is that our distaste is less one of steadfast principle and more one inculcated by the habits of past experience.

To this end, it’d do us a lot of good to drop the cynicism. When you pay for something you generally get your money’s worth. We shouldn’t be afraid to use this reasoning in areas of digital media that traditionally come for ‘free’. In the era of ‘fake news’, clickbait and dodgy headlines, quality journalism may come at a premium - and that’s okay. There is no reason, given what ‘free’ or advertiser-based revenue streams incentivise, to expect anything less. I thus encourage you, if there is a service that you value online, be quality journalism or any other kind of digital media, consider paying for it once your free trial is over. You’ll receive a good product and at the same time be supporting quality content online in an ocean of rent-seeking sensationalists.

Lead Image Credit : kreatikar // Pixabay 

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