The problem with paywalls

Obviously, there’s a difference between the internet and the real world. We all agree that difference gets smaller by the day, but there are some behaviors that our online selves have, that would never fly in the real world. Here’s one of them:

Imagine if you went to Disneyland expecting it to be free. After all, they get to advertise their movies and sell their toys, so it should be free, right?

So you get there and you find out it’s not free, and it’s more than you want to pay. That seems unfair to you. You are sure that they would make more money if they just charged a minimal price instead of the amount they charge.

Because you think it’s so unfair, you search and search until you find an open door, where someone else has made it possible to get in for free. You enjoy the rides, and you really don’t think there’s anything wrong with this.

That not only sounds like the wrong way to live your life, it’s illegal. At the least you’re trespassing on private property. It could also be some form of theft and who knows what those mouse-friendly Anaheim, CA police will charge you with.

Yet that’s our expectation of online life.

Change “went to Disneyland” to “went to stream a Disney movie” and all of a sudden the morality changes. Plenty of people share passwords or pirate movies, and few of them think about it. A lot of the content we want is behind some sort of paywall and somehow we think that’s unfair. For the last 25 years, we’ve been conditioned to think that all online content should be either free or very fairly priced.

And yes, this creates a problem.

The problem with paywalls is that they aren’t fair or equitable. This is especially true with news, but it’s also true with video content. We’ve seen a big change in the last five years. Many reputable information sources moved behind paywalls or subscription services, while a lot of less reputable information sources continue to be free.

Let’s take a made-up example, because this blog isn’t about politics or partisanship.

Let’s pretend there’s a rumor spreading online that limes cause your toes to fall off. Half the country thinks this is a conspiracy theory created by the lemon growers, and the other half thinks that it’s a legitimate health threat and “big lime” needs to be stopped.

How this plays out

There’s demonstrated science to prove that limes don’t make your toes fall off. And, there are plenty of reputable articles that prove, step by step, that limes won’t make your toes fall off. But those scientific studies are only available to doctors or universities who subscribe to the medical journals. Those reputable articles pop up with a subscription warning. There’s even a 6-part documentary by an Emmy-winning filmmaker exposing the silliness of both sides, but it’s on a streaming service you don’t get, and you’re not inclined to pay $15 a month to get it.

So, you go to get the information where you can. And what pops up are some very convincing YouTube videos talking about the damage done by limes. There are plenty of web sites, too, that quote sources you can’t see. That sounds sketchy, but remember the other sources, the ones that say limes are fine, are hidden too. You end up believing the worst about limes, because that’s the only information you can get.

What’s the best way to fix this?

I don’t think all content should be free. I don’t think that you have a right to hack or pirate anything. And I don’t think there should be some sort of review board to make sure that everything online conforms to one person’s idea of truth.

Instead, I think the best move is to get back to advertiser support. A lot of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt comes from well-funded sources. One way to make sure that the clear-minded information gets out is to use advertising. I’m not saying the internet should follow broadcast TV or radio down the road of having 33% or more of an hour’s content taken up by advertising. But I do think that if some honest discussions can be brought to a larger group of people by the use of some paid ads, that’s good. More and more streaming services are adding an advertiser-supported tier, and more and more studios are adding completely free services (like IMDB TV, Pluto and Tubi) that share a lot of content with their paid services but are available to all.

In my opinion, that’s the right way to go. Make it possible for information to get to the people, and let them choose between advertising and having to pay.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.