Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Free Media

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"
-- David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

New technologies are often described by way of a metaphor or an extension of existing technologies. The automobile was initially called a "horseless carriage" and rightfully so. It performed the exact function of the carriage which was to carry people from point to point and the carriage makers soon went out of business.

The radio to some extent performed the same function as the music box. It could play music but did so wirelessly at a distance. So by seeing it as a music box one could wonder how one would collect revenue by sending out music to nobody in particular. At best, it could be used for public service or education but how could you make money from it? It soon became clear that commercially the radio was more within the paradigm of the newspaper. They both deliver content which may or may not be freely distributed but the real revenue is made from selling advertising.

Early television was described by some as an educational tool and thought destined to be an electronic teacher of the future. The metaphor could be apt but it was a little misguided commercially. Commercially it has more in common with print and radio since it came also to make money by selling advertising.

When the internet came to be noticed by people who didn't even wear pocket protectors it was also hailed as an educational tool that would aid in the teaching of the masses. But once again the commercial paradigm started by print media, continued by radio and expanded by television seems to be the most efficient way to make money from the internet. Google has proven that gobs of money can be made on the internet by selling or facilitating the selling of advertising which has been modified in clever ways to fit the new medium.

Of course radio, television and the internet have all been used successfully to educate the masses but the commercial exploitation of the media has been largely through the selling and placement of advertising. But is there another way? People still pay to buy newspapers (less and less it seems). Satellite radio and cable TV are proving that people will pay subscription fees for premium content distributed to their home or car. What we haven't seen yet are any large-scale successes of subscription based businesses on the Internet.

Is this just a temporary lag before the commercialization of the internet matures? Or is the nature of the Internet different in any significant way? A new generation of kids are growing up thinking it is quite natural to get content for free while at the same time eschewing any attempts to be advertised to. Commercially this tension seems untenable since it seems that someone's got to pay for the ride. You will either accept to be interrupted by advertising or you will pay for the privilege of bypassing it.

But even as I write this "message sent to nobody in particular" there are ads on this blog and some bloggers are trying to extract subscription fees from readers. We continue in the spirit of blogging to produce content by ourselves for ourselves and because of the diminishing costs of the technology there is a chance that we may be able to keep it mostly free.

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