It’s the high cost of free that’s getting me down.
…before they find a solution. Or disappear.
All print media took a hit because of the web. Too many print media publishers saw the web as advertising for their print product rather than a discrete revenue stream. As a result, they priced their web product too cheaply, and both made it harder to run a print publication and sustain a web publication.
There was the “information wants to be free” claim that was brandished about when the web started killing off print. That was only half the story. And the wrong half at that. Stewart Brand had uttered the statement, but it wasn’t a stand-alone sentiment. (Irony: the people beating the “information wants to be free” drum the loudest profited from it to the point of making Wall Streeters look modest.)
“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”
The problem for both halves is that when incomes are flat lining, expenses are going up, and most people can’t choose between having more time than work or more work than time, people “economize” by filling up their ostensibly free time with work they used to outsource. When one is doing well, it’s easy to hire a plumber. But when there isn’t a budget for surprise expenditures, it makes more sense to buy the tools and do the plumbing work oneself. This applies to the magazine world. People were cost conscious enough that $20 for a subscription looked like a luxury, especially when it seems that the same information is available for free online.
Free took off because even if information wants to be expensive, taking the extra time to scour free sources to gain “for free” what one used to pay for, is a short-term dollar-saving measure that one, largely unwittingly, pays for. (Btw, Brand’s statement above was in a debate with Apple’s Steve Wozniak, who felt information should be free but not time.)
The long-term costs of the “free” strategy eventually kicked in. Written media budgets were slashed. Institutional knowledge wasn’t worth as much as it used to be, so not only did staffs get smaller, but they also got younger. There was more pressure to appeal to advertisers to keep them buying ad space, which probably skewed the content in many outlets, making advertisers happier but left readers disappointed and disenchanted, and eventually those eyeballs didn’t look for those sources.
The web also offered an opportunity for those who found that getting into the pages of newspapers and magazines and websites difficult. Whether a race, or racer, or maker, or opinionator, building websites got easier and easier. The cost of getting it out got lower and lower. The enterprising and entrepreneurial could create outlets. If people could find them. It’s impossible to know what to search for when you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Social media offered a solution. Trust is a big part of what’s on offer, almost as much as exposure. A friend or “friend” likes, posts, shares something; they’ve found it for you and vouch for it. The more people affirm something, the greater quality that thing seems to have.
This is when free started getting really expensive. It takes time, even with social media, even with a search engine to find many things that were once chosen and bundled for you. The old arrangement wasn’t perfect, but it was often more efficient.
Magazines for niche interests like cycling were very much designed as multi-ring circuses, presenting lots of different kinds of information. Event reporting. Features. Analysis. Essays. Service journalism—how to’s and product reviews. Lots of different things for lots of different readers. This work was supported by the niche industry and the niche enthusiasts. Altogether, very much a community enterprise. Niche shops are often seen as information hubs, but they get their info largely from the same sources as the public, with the added benefit of having time to go through multiple sources and visiting manufacturer representatives give them inside dope on products.
Industry advertisers seem have realized that when they place an ad in magazine or website that is more-or-less journalistic in nature, the advertisers aren’t controlling the eyeballs of those visiting those pages. And the bigger players don’t see as much a need for the community when they see themselves as offering everything anyone can need. Advertisers, by supporting those journalistic enterprises, could be giving visibility to competitors. Big Bike Company A is loath to place an ad in a bike magazine because that magazine may feature an article or articles or an image or images of Big Bike Company B, or give exposure to a small competitor, maybe even in the form of an ad. Exposure for that small competitor could be the difference between staying in business or not. Big Component Manufacturer Z might be leery to place an ad for fear of seeing a magazine cover with a rider on Big Component Manufacturer Y components. And all might be uncomfortable to let some magazine editor trumpet a new technology or design that might, eventually cause their downfall.
It seems that advertisers are now more interested in creating their own walled gardens, where they can control everything. They publish features. They post how-to articles. They tweet and ‘gram lots of pictures of their stuff. The words and images can be pretty good—after all, much of the stuff is created by people who were working for cycling magazines not long ago.
Everyone is looking out for themselves. But everyone looking out for number one seems to have impoverished us collectively. Even with more total written content, it often feels like there’s less one can like. It’s no problem to find articles to read, pictures to look at, videos to watch, but there’s more dreck to sort through before the good stuff is found. This extra time that it takes to sift through the crap is part of what makes free so expensive. Another thing that gets expensive is the difficulty of finding trust. My friends are fine, but they don’t know everything and the bigger the circle, the less sure I am that I should trust the source. And many of my friends, while well meaning, aren’t expert on everything.
After trust, there’s the issue of accumulating enough information to make a decision. There are fewer places to find gear surveys to know what choices are and how to evaluate the gear. Fewer still compare products in the same category—and even fewer have the resources to come up with lab tests to check manufacturer’s claims. Nowadays, if you want a fast wheel set, it’s hard to know first what’s available, then how to compare choices. Yes there are spec sheets, but they are often designed to both reveal (strengths) and obfuscate (weaknesses). Trustworthy independent sources would be nice for the consumer to have so those sources can utilize time and expertise with wheels before the consumer plunks down somewhere between $1,000-$3,000.
Another difficulty is learning about what’s going on that you don’t know to look for. Gravel racing wouldn’t be a thing today if it weren’t for magazines sounding the trumpet, though they certainly have a vested interest in it. Fixed-gear crits were once a local phenomenon that you had to know somebody to find out about. Mountain biking was very much grown with media.
Finding new stuff is even harder. There don’t seem to be enough sources to find things that don’t already have marketing muscle behind them. This is good for bigger companies, the incumbents, the status quo, but bad for consumers, and ultimately, the marketplace suffers. Less innovation, less competition, higher prices, lower trust. Fewer sales, too.
Between market consolidation and media disintermediating, the world seems to be getting less interesting, less able to evolve. Less free.
In some respects it feels wrong that in the 21st century, with all the communication technology we have at our disposal, that it’s getting harder to find high-quality information, whether it’s in our niche or society at large. But with the old contract broken, by consumers as much as anyone else, we’re getting what we pay for.
It might be hard to care about the marketplaces you visit or the communities you’re part of when it feels like you’re just struggling to survive. This goes not only for businesses, but individuals as well. A disturbing study found that 40% of Americans would have trouble putting together $400 in an emergency, 60% would have trouble finding $1,000. In light of this reality, it’s easy to see why people choose the “free” route even though it has negative long-term consequences. A one-year subscription to VeloNews is $39.95, ten percent of $400. A daily paper subscription to The New York Times in its home zip code is $520/year, more than half of the $1,000 most Americans would have trouble scrounging up. Paying for one’s journalism in paper is a pricey option for much of the country.
That’s why suckitude will probably get larger and more obvious and sad for the foreseeable future. And we’ll keep paying the high price of free because.