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.

Sage

“What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.” —Abraham Lincoln

“Baseball continues to be the only entertainment industry where those that run the business continually tell their consumers how bad their product is.” —Peter Gammons, nicely channeling Lincoln

It’s official

My books arrived yesterday! I came home from a midday viewing of “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” to find a “sorry we missed you” FedEx delivery tag on the front door of my apartment. I hadn’t been expecting anything, especially the books, which weren’t due to arrive until the first week of June.

The books arrived yesterday, hot off the presses from Donnelly and Sons, delivered to my home—almost—by Federal Express.

I came home from a midday viewing of “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” (better than expected; fun and exciting; Anakin and Amidala were terrible, but I still had fun) to find a “sorry we missed you” FedEx delivery tag on the front door of my apartment. I hadn’t been expecting anything, especially the books, which weren’t due to arrive until the first week of June.

In my apartment I logged onto fedex.com and tracked the package. The contents were listed as “books (5),” and my eyes grew wide.

My books!

The excitement was almost too much to bear. “My books!” I kept yelling as I bounced around the apartment. “My books!”

I called FedEx. Their Manhattan processing center—way over on 42nd and 11th, which is inconvenient but not nearly as bad as UPS, which is up in the Bronx—was open until 9. Well! Over we go.

Two buses and one subway ride later, I found myself sitting in the FedEx waiting area, tearing open my cardboard box as I waited for the bus to take me back east. Beneath some bubble wrap lay five clean copies of “The Site Speaks for Itself,” as promised, with my name on the cover and my photo inside (twice, no less). Everything looked as promised, handsome and clean.

I flipped through the rest of the book, taking in everyone’s images and pull-quotes, reading Matt‘s bio and Molly‘s introduction on the subway ride to my girlfriend’s apartment. The moment had climaxed rather quickly; I had, after all, seen my chapter and the book cover dozens of times, and I knew what to expect. But the thrill of holding the book, of officially being a published author, still tingles through me a day later.

Amy arrived home from the airport half an hour after I got to her place. She grinned as she pointed at my name on the cover, grinned some more when she found her name in my acknowledgements.

The real fun of publishing is in sharing and showing the finished work. I can’t wait to give my parents and my brother their copies.

I’m a busy man the next few weeks, but I loved contributing to this project, and I can’t wait to write again. Bruce Lawson, expect a follow-up call in July. I’ve got another book to pitch.

Ten days is too long

I have an incredible hankering to write something and I was really tired of that celebrity spotting piece, so I have compelled myself to jot a new piece in this space.

Alas, nothing has hit. So you’re stuck reading this (and the weblog! the weblog!).

If you’re curious, I am on the cusp of a very busy spring: Fixing up this Web site (very soon), contributing new and exciting pieces to other sites, taking a class, contemplating new print authoring ideas. I have pledged to myself to keep this site running smoothly through the schedule crunch.

So yeah, this is a poor excuse for an essay. At least I’ve relegated skinny-ass Renee Zellweger to the archives.

Your new (wireless) plan, Stan

Upgraded my cell phone plan today. I’m not sure how AT&T Wireless is making money off me anymore. But I remain a satisfied customer.

After four years as a satisfied AT&T Wireless customer, I have learned to keep an eye on new calling plans to ensure I get the most value for my money.

For a while, AT&T Wireless wanted to upgrade me to a lesser plan than my outdated one; they wanted to yank my unlimited evenings and weekends (this in the days of 500-minute off-peak plans) or charge me more for additional services I didn’t need. Then they started increasing their minutes and decreasing the cost. I had:

1. 60 peak minutes and unlimited off-peak for $29.99 a month

2. 200 peak and unlimited off-peak for the same price, because my unlimited off-peak minutes were grandfathered into the original plan (which drove the customer service reps crazy)

3. 250 peak, 1000 off-peak with SMS and an extended roaming area for $39.99/mo (I gave in)

4. 250 peak, 1000 off-peak reduced to $34.99/mo with free national long distance, awarded to me after the customer service rep said, “I can’t give you that plan, but if you lead me to believe you may cancel your account because of this, I’m allowed to see what I can do for you. Is that what you’d like me to believe?”

Today’s New York Times carried an ad for a new mlife “National Network monthly calling plan.” The same $34.99 upgrades me to 300 peak minutes and unlimited night and weekend minutes again. Good deal, eh?

“Unlimited-night-and-weekend minutes are only available for new customers signing up for two-year agreements,” the customer service representative informed me. “But what we can do is give you 3,000 ‘anytime minutes’ instead.”

In my four years as a satisfied AT&T Wireless customer, I have yet to use more than 1100 minutes in a month. Sold.

Frankly, I’m not even sure how AT&T Wireless is making money off me anymore. But I remain a satisfied customer.