Conspiracy Theories

  • The online publishing industry, stricken by mass cowardice, resists charging for content.

  • The U.S. government is covering up how space aliens landed in New Mexico in 1947.
  • Consumers won’t pay for online content because they’ve grown used to not paying.
  • MI6, the British foreign intelligence agency, arranged Princess Diana’s fatal car crash because she became a liability to the royal family.
  • Digerati plot and scheme to keep online content free.

Of these five conspiracy theories, we can debunk the three regarding online content.

Conspiracy theories are simplistic explanations for unwanted realities. Reality is often complex, but the mind seeks simple patterns within complexities. Is that rustling in the brush an approaching tiger? Are these yellow berries always edible? Do all Web sites put the navigation menu on the left?

Often, the simplest explanations are correct, as the philosophical axiom, Occam’s Razor tell us. It’s named for William of Ockham, the 14th-century Franciscan monk who originated the theory.

Occam’s Razor is useful. But too often, reality is more complex than the simplest explanation. Scientists in William of Ockham’s era believed thunder and lightning to be sounds and sparks from colliding storm clouds. The simplest explanation for meteorological phenomena is incorrect; the reality is far more complex.

Simplistic explanations remain seductive — that’s why they’re at the core of conspiracy theories.

Too many online publishers believe in simplistic theories with almost medieval fervor.

Conspiracy Theory No. 1: The Industry Is Afraid to Charge for Content

According to this theory, cowardice permeates online publishing. It goes something like this: Though pressed to show a profit from online publishing, an industry full of hard-headed business people who compete fiercely with each other have been stricken with cowardice. They’re afraid to charge for content. A corollary: If only online publishers had the courage to charge for content, everything will be fine.

Well, hate to burst a simplistic fantasy, but the online publishing industry doesn’t suffer from mass delusion or cowardice. There are rational, realistic reasons why most online publishers hesitate to charge for their content.

Foremost are fundamental reasons why the Web isn’t a particularly good medium for periodical publishing, either ad sponsored or when subsidized by subscriptions. Consider how seldom most consumers access even the most popular content. Online publishers realize consumers won’t pay for content they don’t regularly use.

Plenty of online publishers have attempted to charge, now and in the past. Their experiences show putting a tollbooth in front of a site and charging print rates for access doesn’t succeed.

The successful route to charging for online content isn’t the simplistic forcing users through that tollbooth. Sure, The Wall Street Journal Online can do it, but as the site’s founder and former publisher Neil Budde told PaidContent.org:

I actually think right now too many people are making a rush towards the subscription model because everybody says now is the time they should go for that. That’s probably as bad for some people as starting off with the free model was back then. It really needs to be much more specific to the circumstances of the particular company, product, and competition.

Charging for any or all access can work. The reality of doing it successfully is not simplistic.

Conspiracy Theory No. 2: Consumers Won’t Pay — They’re Habituated Not To

This conspiracy theory purports consumers won’t pay for online content because they never had to before. Its corollary says publishers committed a major error in forgetting to charge print-edition rates for online access in the early days of the Web.

The historical reality is many major online publishers did attempt to charge print-edition rates for access in the early days (1993-2001). Those attempts failed.

During those eight years, almost every online periodical publisher (including those who tried to charge for content) decided free, ad-supported content was their business model. They offered free content to acquire large numbers of visitors, which they thought would attract advertisers and high CPMs. That model wasn’t successful. They are now desperate for greater online revenues.

This theory is sour grapes. We publishers intentionally offered free content, but our business model largely failed. We now blame you for our choice. Publishers could always charge for access. Many did but wanted print-edition fees. That was far too high a price to attract users.

Sure, consumers would love free content. But, as I wrote last month, most are willing to pay for content, just not the fees (typically print-edition rates) most publishers want to charge. Research studies back this up.

The problem isn’t consumers won’t pay. The problem is they won’t pay a lot for content they don’t regularly use. The simplistic tollbooth in front of a content site isn’t the answer. Real answers lie in the complexity of online competition, economics, and a lack of microtransaction infrastructure. Don’t blame consumers.

Conspiracy Theory No. 3: The Digerati Plot to Keep Online Content Free

My favorite conspiracy theory: A cabal of digerati plots and schemes keep content free. The digerati use their occult powers to do this.

One theorist I read recently declared, “Formidable forces continue to thrash against what many are dutifully trying to build for the sake of a sustainable economic future.”

This wonderful conspiracy is based on the assumption opponents of charging for online content (or of charging print-edition prices) have enormous powers. They hold sway over online publishing executives and consumers alike.

Like the theory about how the Trilateral Commission secretly rules the world, perhaps it’s true. Maybe Stewart Brand, Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow, and digerati Esther Dyson and Nicholas Negroponte meet in a secret chamber in Vanuatu and plot to prevent publishers from charging for content. Budde and I must be the cabal’s lackeys. We advocate caution, deliberation, and complex solutions.

My favorite supporter of this conspiracy defends his view using a favored defense of conspiracy theorists: requesting an explanation as simple as their theory.

I would simply ask adversaries to rationally explain how habitual publishers of free content will build long-term competitive advantages in such a nonexclusive (i.e., hypercompetitive) advertising channel as the Web.

Well, NYTimes.com, CNN.com, and other major content sites profitably built long-term competitive advantages in a nonexclusive advertising channel — yet offer free content.

Does their answer work for all publishers? No. Reality is more complex than simplistic theory.

It would be wonderful to have a simple reason why online publishers have so much trouble charging for content. Realities are complex. So are solutions. We’re still working to solve them.

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