Pop quiz

Q. How can you turn $55 into $80 without trying?

A. Buy tickets through Ticketmaster.com.

I’ll spare the usual rant, but just FYI: A pair of $27.50 concert tickets are going to cost me $40 apiece (before shipping costs) when I buy them later today. Who’da thought I’d long for the days of the $3.50 convenience charge?

Ten bucks

At the dinner reception for the Orthodox Jewish wedding, Amy leaned over as we were being served the main course.

“I dare you to ask for the kosher meal.”

Pay? Voluntarily? Really?

Today’s New York Times article on the commercial implications of digital video recorders has me thinking about consumers’ sense of entitlement, and the methods with which content producers try and create revenues. This leads into free content-based Web sites and the donation schemes many of them now tout. The “donate” links raise questions for me: Is this site free or not? Why is it being published, for the owner or the reader? And most importantly, who would donate to these causes, and why?

Today’s New York Times article on the commercial implications of digital video recorders has me thinking about consumers’ sense of entitlement, and the methods with which content producers try and create revenues.

In the article, Jamie Kellner of Turner Broadcasting, worried about happy TiVo users skipping ads, saya, “If you don’t watch the commercials, someone’s going to have to pay for television and it’s going to be you.” And on a fundamental level, I’m okay with that.

Why shouldn’t I pay money to access the individual channels on my cable system? If the YES Network wants two bucks per subscriber, and I want YES, should it cost me two dollars, and not someone else? Of course it should.

The danger comes in creating a barrier to entry. If I had to pay for the Game Show Network, I probably would not have bothered, and I never would have fallen in love with 1970s “Newlywed Game” reruns. But try-and-buy systems can and should exist, and through these models, we could someday adapt to a new way of viewing television. I know I’d be willing to pay for a season of “Ed” and “The Sopranos” rather than getting everything or nothing.

This leads into free content-based Web sites and the donation schemes many of them now tout. The “donate” links raise questions for me: Is this site free or not? Why is it being published, for the owner or the reader? And most importantly, who would donate to these causes, and why?

Apologies if this sounds callous, but I will not voluntarily give money to a self-published, noncommercial Web site. The presenter is creating a work and sharing it free of charge—therefore it is not a for-profit situation. As such, it is not an arena in which I would provide financial award.

Why should I “donate” my own money to a nonexistent “cause?”

Web site donation systems—high-profile server funds as well as “If you like this site, give me a buck” PayPal links on personal sites—are, in a word, silly. Try placing them in proper analogical context:

  • Example: The Village Voice is free in New York each week. Say the Voice puts a note on their front page asking you to mail in five bucks out of loyalty. Would you? No: One does not pay for something that is deliberately available without pay.
  • Example: Your friend has a Sony Playstation 2. You play Grand Theft Auto 3 twice a week, once in a while when your friend isn’t even playing. Do you take a $10 bill out of your pocket one Sunday and leave it on the TV, saying, “Hey, man, thanks for all the comp time?” No: One does not pay to partake in pleasures provided free of charge.
  • Example: You give money to museums who charge “suggested donation” prices as admission. In this case, the appeal is obvious: You can come in for nothing, but you’ll likely feel guilty about it, and you’re also paying for a much greater privilege than reading something that most folks are reading for free. Is this an accurate example? No. The difference here is that a non-profit organization is identified as such, unlike, say, The Morning News, which is, so far as I can tell, a labor of love and an opportunity to publish to a wide audience (and an excellent one).
I have a much easier time philosophically with links to Amazon wish lists and the like. Would you buy your friend a thank-you gift after all those hours playing Playstation games? You sure might; I probably would. But I wouldn’t hand my pal ten bucks.

An important aspect of this is the obligation and access. If sites I loved had pay schemes, I would, more often than not, pay for them. Metafilter, for example, would be worth an annual membership fee to me. But I have not donated to Metafilter’s donation system on the side (sorry, Matt), nor will I, because its intent is simply to lessen bandwidth costs and make Matt less aggravated about the site he runs for free (and now supports with advertising). As a casual reader, his costs are not my problem, the same way the cost of newsprint isn’t my problem until the New York Times decides to charge me more for my morning paper.

Sites that request donations expect their readerships to view their sites the way computer users regard shareware: If you like it, pay us a few bucks, which will encourage us to keep up the good work. But content isn’t the same as software; it is usually a diversion, not a utility, which alters its worth. Additionally, one assumes a site receiving $0 in donations would continue to run, much the way shareware without a set expiration continues to work for free. This discourages the incentive and value in donating.

To bring in revenue, there are lots of other questions that can be asked, schemes that can be tried that have not yet taken root. Why isn’t there a pay weblog? Why isn’t there a weblog network that charges one value for multiple sites? Why don’t systems like Blogger provide a pay interface on the consumer end and provide easy access for content creators to charge money for their sites?

I am not on the winning side of this argument just yet; so long as users expect their Internet##8212;and their television##8212;to be free of incremental costs, they will not be inclined to spend money. But should Americans come to accept a sales model other than buffet-style pricing, content producers everywhere would truly benefit. In the meantime, the beggar’s cup we politely call “donation links” is not enticing me to fish for my change.