The Paradox of Free

One of the most interesting online items today is whether or not customers and consumers are willing to pay for original content. It is a complex issue. A very complex issue. As is the case with most complex issues the real questions are not discussed in public and they are multidimensional.

It is about change, disruptive technologies, pressures on value chains, outsiders entering existing markets, user experience, customer behaviour, marketing, business as usual, the quality of a product, power, egomaniacs and most importantly a lack of time to reflect & think. A little bit about differences in mentality and speed between incumbents and newcomers. In my humble opinion it is not at all about a collapse between old & new media. Both still have to pay the bills.

Let’s start with the reason why this subject became a dominant issue. The economic crisis, leading to cutbacks in traditional advertising and the gradual shift towards online ads, mainly search driven. So it is all about money. And as everyone knows, all things in life are relative, except money.

It has to do with correcting mistakes from the past. Some publishers decided to give away their content for free, in exchange for the idea that money could be made from advertising. A decision based on vague notions and a lack of understanding online behaviour. It is very hard to admit one made a mistake and even harder to repair it.

It could all very well be a power struggle. Murdoch wants to block GOOG and at the same time deliver a strong message to unions, shareholders and politicians. GOOG needs content, content makers need viewers, revenue streams are not yet properly divided. The people who do the work, and it’s hard work, want to be paid.

It is about some major shifts. News and opinion shifted in an elementary way. Scarcity became abundance. Customer’s time to watch, read and view shifted from well defined time slots to 24/7 multitasking.

The first step in adressing this complex issue is to define it as a paradox and not as a dilemma. Free or not free is seen as a dilemma. It is defined in terms of either or. But it is not. It never was. And never will be.

Stewart Brand is misquoted most of the time. Information wants to be free, yes. But at the very same time some information is priceless.

That’s something else. That’s a paradox. The Paradox of Free.

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