The cost of free services

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The internet has been such a boon for consumers. Never before have so many options been available for media content to consume. The greatest part is that it is all free! Want to listen to music? Spotify lets you pick exactly the songs (with advertisements). Trying to watch a video? YouTube has everything from educational to entertainment. Need to stay up to date? Plenty of news websites offer their articles for free.

Even if the content would traditionally be gated behind a paywall, savvy internet users know there are many ways around this, from illegal streaming sites to actual torrents. This way, not only can free content be had, but paid movies, shows, games and more can all be found just a VPN away. Truly, it is the greatest time to be a consumer.

Of course, it is a great time unless the consumer is also a singer. Or a movie theatre owner. Or a content creator online. Or even an executive at Google. If you fall into one of these camps, the stress you face from the internet may be much bigger than the satisfaction from being able to get free content. In fact, all consumers, regardless of their own profession, may have cause for concern.

While the specifics of each service and media type differ, there are a few lenses through which to look at the situation. First among these is the attention economy. With the vastness of choice out there, one of the main limiting factors to consumers is not money but time. There is a limited amount of time or attention that people have to give, and services want to hold it, in large part to show advertisements. Here, it is easy to see the pressure on content creators to produce more content more quickly in order to catch and maintain an audience.

In a related way, the attention economy model has caused a sort of race to the bottom for both creators and distributors. A race to the bottom is a situation in which, as a result of competition, developers have to lower their own standards in order to remain competitive. While typically thought of in a traditional economic sense, the race to the bottom applies well to online distributors. In order to make money and draw attention, developers must make their services free but aggressive.

Without a required pay model, online services often rely on advertising, a fickle system to be sure. Advertising not only is reliant on there being brands willing to spend the money, it often results in lower dividends for those actually making the content for which people came. Online video creators know all too well the dangers of the advertising well running dry, and musicians and labels can tell the unfortunate side effects of putting music on Spotify.

The most uncomfortable problem related to free services is also linked to the root cause of it. To put it simply, free services breed entitlement. People begin to believe that they deserved to be entertained for free. With the internet, this is not untrue. I would argue, though, that the demand for specifically-free content strangles those who make it; the bounds of creativity cannot be pushed under current constraints. Put another way, large undertakings that are feats of storytelling would not be able to be made with only advertising money. In this way, entitlement hurts not only creators but also consumers, limiting the overall quality and ability of what is available.

In short, content on free services – be they for music, video, written, or elsewise – will necessarily become watered down and cheapened by nature of their platforms and viewers. Furthermore, this is a self-feeding cycle, with entitled consumers unwilling to move to payment methods more suited to better content. Is there a solution to such a situation? There may be, but it requires the cooperation of both those who make and those who watch. Support entertainers you enjoy, lest they wither to nothing of worth.


Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu.  

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