Tag Archives: privacy

Online News Paywalls: Will a Subscription Model Work?

Just read an article about the Sunday Times (A UK newspaper) justifying its paywall.  The link to the article doing said justifying is of course behind the paywall, but you can find another link here (put up by the original author, I believe; remember this for later): http://www.dianestormont.com/jmscbackup/?p=229

The driving argument is this:  good journalism costs money.  Barring the celebrity crap, it costs time for research and digging and it costs money for airfare and other such expenses.

In truth, I hadn’t thought about that part much. I agree.  It makes sense.

But nothing is ever that easy or cut-and-dry.  If I start paying for news, what assurance do I have that more journalists will be hired?  Or that existing ones will get a raise?  or that Mr/Mrs. journalist ABC will finally get an expense check to cover the digging s/he’s doing?  How do I know that that money just isn’t going toward the CEO’s bonus check or to the board of directors or whatever sort of structure sits at the top?  Look at the owners of some of our newspapers and news organizations and you see money.

So it’s not just about quality journalism.  It’s about money, too.  It’s a business.

And that’s where the waters get muddy.  Furthermore, what about the incestuous nature of online news these days?  With stuff like the Associated Press, RSS syndication and suchlike, many news organizations don’t even write or originate the news they write about in the first place.  So you want me to pay you to read what other people worked on?  Why should I bother paying a local paper when I can pay for the Chronicle or the NYT or some bigger paper with more pull (local news is likely available elsewhere)?  Why should I pay the Chronicle or the NYT when maybe I can pay the Associated Press and get my news from the source?

How about the ads that many newspapers show?  One large criteria I’d have for whether I paid or not would be the assurance that they would no longer appear.

Another problem is of course the paywall itself.  When I went to read the original article, I wasn’t even allowed to read a snippet or a summary:  instead, to get my “free preview”, they requested I sign up and log in.  Just for the preview.  In addition, the paywall makes it difficult to handle any kind of discussion or openness about the information contained in the article itself.  If I want to link my friend to a really awesome piece, I can’t.  Not unless they subscribe.

So what do I do?  Likely I copy and paste the article for them.  Or print it out.

So I can’t help but draw paralells between DRM controls and paywalls-as-DRM.  I just don’t think it will work.  People will just circumvent the restriction.  Remeber the opening paragraph, where the article author himself reposted the content somewhere else so that people could read it?  News versus money.  Right there.

Plus, I see the emergence of aggregator services that take that behind-the-paywall stuff, aggregate it together, and then charge people for reading it.  It’s not much of a longshot, especially inside of niche areas like business or tech.  How do you slice up that journalistic pie?

These are the more concrete issues.  I haven’t even touched on the whole bit of how do you innovate and foster open exchange when everything is locked behind an account and a credit card? The stickier, bigger-picture images come down to news versus money and which has priority, and I don’t think the world in general is ready to answer that yet.

Like books, music, and other content, I’ll gladly pay for quality.  but I need to know where my money is going and that my money is directly related to the quality that I receive.  I need to know where it goes.  An example: there’s plenty of free fiction available online.  It spans the quality spectrum from terrible to publish-able quality.  But if I buy a book, I know where my money is going (author, publisher [who pays editors, artists, etc]) and I can expect a generic level of quality (such as basic editing, minimal formatting errors, etc).  But with fiction, the act of handing over money does NOT guarantee quality writing or storytelling, just as handing over money won’t automatically increase the quality of journalism that results.

Perhaps a microtransaction model would be better than a subscription model.  For instance: I find an interesting article to read, I sign in to my 3rd party account and authorize a transaction for 5 cents or 25 cents or whatever it would be, and then I get access to that article.  It would then behoove that news organization (and all the others) to make snippets available for free without registration in the hopes of enticing me to click-and-pay for another article.

These paywalls and the discussions that result from them are an important step, but we still have a long way to go.

Quitting Facebook

I wrote previously about The Problem With Facebook’s Latest Change.  This is a follow-up of sorts to that post.

My account is scheduled for deletion, but in the interim, I’m ruminating on the whole issue before I decide for sure.

I waffled on the decision to deactivate/delete my account.  On the one hand, I felt they were going too far in making assumptions about what the internet “should” be and what users would be okay with.  On the other hand, I know that I interact with many of my friends there.  Its use to me as a promotion platform for my writing and music careers also comes to mind.

Then I started wondering: why am I so reluctant to walk away?  That the thought of leaving bothered me made me want to leave even more.  To poke at it like a sore or loose tooth to figure out what it was and why.

It’s been a few weeks now.  Mostly I’m over the addiction part of it.  It’s nice to have one less thing to check constantly.  I’m able to keep in touch with most everyone, and even if I wasn’t able to specifically acquire alternate contact information, I’m easily found online.

If someone wants to contact me, they can.

But I don’t think they will.

Facebook (and other things like it) provide a convenient way to contact friends.  Like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, it lowers the energy required for that reaction. In this case, it lowers the barrier to actually sending your friend a hello.

Yet most of our updates aren’t even that direct.  We post quizzes and thoughts and links and perhaps get a comment or a click on a ‘like’ button, how often do we interact in a direct, meaningful way?  10% of the time?  Less?  Usually if we did, it was via direct messages anyways, which are just glorified emails.  Also, if you can’t be bothered to shoot me an email to say hello or to respond to mine, how close were we in the first place?  I found it interesting that when I went to deactivate my account, they showed me a random selection of friends and said, “Are you sure?  They’ll miss you.”  Are they counting on the group mentality, the reflex reaction of “I can’t leave my friends!” to keep me subscribed?

Besides, I think they’re wrong.  I have yet to receive one email/tweet/etc from someone on facebook to tell me that they miss seeing me on there.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to be loved and all, but I’m okay with that.

What, exactly, am I leaving behind that I cannot find elsewhere?

An addiction?  A to-do (don’t have plenty of those already)?  A sense of belonging?

Ahh, I have it: I’m leaving behind all those sad cows and ducks from Farmville.

I suppose they’ll just have to fend for themselves.

The Problem With Facebook’s Latest Change

The latest “Instant Personalization” news with Facebook has me a bit irked.  I’m still sitting on my heels until I can figure out exactly how I feel about it and what that entails, but at the moment, all signs point to me deleting my account and calling it done.

Privacy is both a sticky issue and a balancing act:  we get greater benefit out of sharing information, but we have to balance that benefit against the privacy we give up and the information we give out.  My friend posting that they liked a book is an acceptable transaction on the surface by any count:  by sharing their information, I get a recommendation that I know I can count on (or at least from a known source that I can judge accordingly).  The beneficiaries of this exchange are the first circle of influence: my friend’s friends, of which I am one.

The wider the net cast, the less use any of its catch really is.

Herein lies another problem:  we have so many connections, so many “friends” that really aren’t in our first circle.  How many people do you have friended on Facebook?  100?  200?  500?  We have so many friends and so much posting to our feeds–so much raw data–that we need filters to manage it all.  We need something for our social media that resembles what search engines were to the web:  a way to handle the vast amount of “stuff” that acculmulates.  For now, filters do the grunting and sweating.

What makes this worse are the very privacy control tools up for offer: many controls are based around the idea of who gets to see what.  To block our data to the world, or from being slurped to some marketing site, we must restrict our data to “friends only”.  Which means that any person I meet and want to connect with must be added as a friend so that they can see my data.  Once friended, we might even filter each other out to keep out the noise and only check up on them every now and again.

Do I really need the recommendations of 500 people, most of whom I’ve probably met only once?

I also reject every facet of the whole “It’ll improve your experience!” angle:  never rely on someone with a vested interest in your money or your data to tell you how awesome something will be.  If I want recommendations for music to listen to on pandora, I’ll ask my friends directly.

* * * * *

Some people are arguing that “information is always available” anyways.  The angle usually goes, “I spent five minutes and, based on your name and state, found an address and phone number for you.”

So what?

Data is available.  It’s the age we live in.

The key and over-arching privacy concern here–of which this Facebook update is only one example–isn’t whether it’s available or not, it’s about the ease of access.  What was once spread throughout the internet–on a county website here, state website there, university website over there, on this social media site and that social media site–is coming closer and closer to being in less and less disparate places.  It’s the net effect of our sharing this and consolodating that and making everything available.

Websites already track our movements and our data.  A key difference here is that Facebook becomes a crossroads of data between websites and companies.  Something that used to be more difficult.

Total security is impossible.  Real-world usage and effect is based on the effort required.  The locks on your front door aren’t 100% effective in any case, but they make the barrier to entry so much higher as to be mostly effective.  The same thing goes in the high-security world:  expensive locks don’t make things permanently secure.  Medeco locks and whatnot carry a sort of “time to last” rating:  they’re guaranteed to resist break-in for a certain amount of time, which allows a response team enough time to handle the situation. They set a relatively high barrier to entry.

What used to be more difficult now becomes easier because Facebook provides the info in one place.  It would be like merging all of the data from county/state/university/etc sites into one spot and then providing access to it.  What might take you 5 minutes of creating Googling is reduced to a couple web requests over the course of a few automated seconds.  The barrier to entry gets bulldozed.

* * * * *

It’s also about who’s in control.  It’s not just about having to opt-out, which is bad enough.  One of my most major complaints can be found here:  “How do I opt-out of instant personalization?”

To prevent your friends from sharing any of your information with an instant personalization partner, block the application

This goes way beyond the Huffington Post’s twitter disaster, too (which, by the by, we all agreed to in Twitter’s ToS).

That was a dumb mirror of stuff you’ve specifically already posted.  This Facebook change represents a concerted effort to aggregate and then do something with it.  That something is aimed straight at you.  And, like a vampire at your door, you invited it in.

This is also a new high (or is it low?) in the whole online privacy mess because my friends are capable of sharing my info, as well.  I might have given them access to read my updates and data, but I most likely haven’t given them permission to divulge that information to someone else.  To block that, I need to go into my settings and specifically block each app.

And if they release another site/app under this feature?  Why, I have to go in and block that one, too.

Assuming I hear about it.

I guess the alternative is something like this:

To: You Guys

From: Ron

Subject: Friday night?

Message:  Hey guys, so I’ll see you all at Bob’s house on Friday, right?   Oh, and by the way, please don’t leak my data all over the ‘net.  kthxbai

I think the biggest indication of this being bullshit that this is opt-out (if you can call it that) instead of opt-in.  Even if I bought the “oh, but it makes your experience BETTER!” line, opting every single person in for it by default is misleading at best and underhanded at worst.

Let me decide what will enhance my experience.  At it’s core, that’s what the internet is all about:  people finding neat / useful things and then spreading the world.

If it’s useful, you can trust that I’ll hear about it without you enrolling me in it out of the gate.