Friday, June 13, 2008

The Future Of The Internet And You

enjoy this while you can

First off, please do not beat me over the head with the Internet equivalent of a cricket bat for bringing this topic/article up -- I don't agree with all of it, but I do think it raises some timely questions.

The writer of this post makes the point that "geeks" (techies, early-adopters, the Internet savvy, etc) have created a culture of "free" where anyone can get anything online for free. In the process, the creators get nothing, get swindled, etc:

"The “free” Internet costs Americans around $10,000, give or take depending on quality, by the time you add up the computer, the software, the monitor, the laptop, the cell phone, and a year’s worth of connection services. But “free culture” demands that we will not pay one penny for a piece of digital art.

The Internet has become the new weapon of imperialists. Today’s imperialists, also known as “The Geeks” have been very successful at securing their economic domination of the world by making non-technical talent and skills, like the ability to draw, worth nothing on the Internet (and even beyond), even when the finished product is far from worthless."

The conversation quickly turns to webcomics, the example being used African webcomics creators. The poster writes:

"There. I’ve just helped myself to African comics. It was fast and easy thanks (sincerely) to the geeks who created the technology, and also free thanks (sarcastically) to geeks who created the free movement and who continue to labor overtime on blogs, Twitter, FriendFeed and so on, to proselytize an Internet culture that will not tolerate the creation of an economic channel that could pay these creators for the use of their art here on my blog, even though I want to pay."

And this all dovetails into an issue very much on the minds of the Web 2.0 social media field in which I work -- in the future, will we have to pay for all this? Will we have to pay for a subscription to Twitter, will we have to pay for access to Internet "portals" based on Google (now Google/Yahoo), MSN, etc?

Is This The Future Of The Internet?

And will we have to pay for webcomics?

I think the day they completely crack down on the illegal downloading and stop making these social media sites and online newspapers/etc. free, the day they make you pay for Internet access the way you do for cable and make it a federal crime to download unauthorized material -- people are going to f**king riot. Literally.

And then several days after that, we are going to settle into our daily routines and pay the fees. Sure, a permanent underground of "geek" rebels will be formed, handing out flyers at public meeting places and throwing pies at Bill Gates. Perhaps the Rebellion will be far more real and serious than that. But --

The day will come when we will have to pay for all this stuff. It is coming anyway. I don't know how much we will have to pay for these Internet services, and I don't know how extensive it will be. And I'm not saying it's right. And I don't agree with all of the points made in the referenced article.

But, I read a heavy volume of industry news every day for my job, and I'm telling you -- this day is coming. I attended a function of the top media movers and shakers about three months ago (not cuz I'm awesome, but because somebody cancelled), and that was the top topic. "How do we monetize this?" This wasn't a bunch of pundits, or what have you. These were the heads of media companies.

How will this specifically effect webcomics creators? The cream will rise to the top. Today's hot webcomics creators will be tomorrow's mainstream darlings, pulling in far more money than they have ever dreamed. And they will either be savvy enough to maintain competitive websites, or they (more likely) will be "attached" to one large company or another. 'Cause when a lot of this pay-for-Internet-portal-access stuff comes down, when the gates begin to close, their expenses will rise to the point where they will have to have some big company back them up -- or at least create a big company of their own.

DC wasn't stupid in creating Zuda. Nor were they being "nefarious." They understood the concept that creators -- regardless of the medium -- had to get paid. They also (and this is purely conjecture) understood that the models for media distribution both in print and online are changing. We can argue about the finer points of contracts, rights, etc., all day. And I'm not suggesting independent webcomics creators need or even should go to Zuda.

But, I am saying that the free content that we enjoy now -- and the free services -- will not stay that way forever. Right now is, in many ways, a renaissance. A time to experiment. And if you depend on the Internet for your income -- whether you're a webcomicker, an Internet marketer, a blogger, an e-commerce businessperson, a writer for an online publication -- you need to trend these things out. You need to do your research, keep up with things, and learn to anticipate. You absolutely have to.

Always happy to be your little ray of sunshine


  1. I make comics and I webcomic at comicspace. I've been working on what I hope will be at least a weeklie and I never considered Zuda before because they don't offer anything I don't already have but... I'm thinking more and more that I should try Zuda out if for no other reason than to familiarize myself with the model that may be closer to what will be the standard in the future. I'm begining that the self-publisher/creator (like myself) increasingly needs to not only be familiar with the proven business models but to be familiar with every buisness model because it's hard to predict what will stick or if there ever will be a standard. Maybe the standard of this century is no standard.

  2. Dear Val,

    While I understand your concern I think the basic rule of “information wants to be free” will always hold true on the internet.

    Just look at the intriguing ways Youtube is finding to become profitable without charging the monthly fee you so fear.

    While I can’t speak for the webcomics business model, I’m reasonably certain that all social networking sites and other popular entertainment destinations will remain free because it is the only business model that works on the web.

    Never fear Val, the mid 90’s are behind us. It’s all going to be okay.



  3. Wow. This is an amazing insight. As someone tangentally in the broadcast industry, I'm not totally against it. I've often wondered if anything like the entertainment industry can possibly survive given the freebie, drag-and-drop evnironment. If there's no way to make anybody pay for anything, how are you going to have blockbuster movies and big-budget TV? Is everything going to just reduce to the level of YouTube? Are we going to trade in the film industry for just watching people vlog in their bedrooms? If the big evil corporations can somehow figure out a way to stop the hemorrhaging, I'm down with it.

  4. However, a lot of people are creating content on the web (thinking of webcomics creators in particular) without the thought or expectation of being paid. These people are making comics because they love to make comics. Sure, they would like to get paid and I think the prospect for them to get paid is a good one. But as long as it is possible for Joe Writer/Artist to throw a website up and post content to it, there will be free stuff on the internet.
    What I fear is the prospect of a few big business gatekeepers controlling access to internet content and deciding how money that content generates should be distributed.
    In a way, that's how it already is. I pay AT&T for my DSL at home, so they're making money off this blog, Food Network, my bank's online banking features and any other internet destination that I may have. However AT&T isn't choking off any possible revenue streams you might create by doing so. (Occasional Superheroine t-shirts, Alton Brown DVDs, interest from loaning out my meager funds, and of course, ad revenue, which makes our capitalist world go 'round.)
    I don't know if I have a point, but if I do its that there will always be free stuff on the internet, it may just exist alongside a whole bunch of other stuff you have to pay for.
    And piracy will always be a factor. The tighter you make your grip, the more webcomics will slip through your fingers.

  5. Anonymous5:19 PM

    I think time is running out, but that's for the people who want to charge subscription internet. Every year is just one more wave of kids growing up on this total, free, instant information portal.

    So I disagree with your comment that we'd all riot for a few days and then get used to it. This upcoming generation can't even think of a world without the internet, so couple that with hackers, porn addicts, and everyone in every other country that doesn't have such laws and the government won't be able to do too much.

  6. Anonymous7:57 PM

    You should never put up anything online if you're uptight about people taking it for their own use or later enjoyment. Lots of people understand and live with that, though the entertainment industry refuses to. Lots of people pay for their own domain and a server in order to express themselves and understand that creativity — even that which is expressed online — is its own reward and may not bring in a million dollars. But the really creative always find a way to make a buck despite the natural tendency of people to want something for free. And big businesses always whine that they aren't making enough money even though, at times, it seems like they are making all the money that exists.

    The worst thing that can happen is that ISPs block private servers — but that's sorta the AOL model and only the lamest of the lame accept that kind of service. There will always be free content of some sort online and there will always be people who enjoy being experts in their field and sharing the knowledge for free. And there will alway be media conglomerates trying to figure out how they can make more money than they already have.

    No fears.

  7. the day they make you pay for Internet access the way you do for cable

    Where are people getting free internet from? Because I've had to pay for mine for as long as I've had it.

    Over-the-air broadcast television has been free for decades, and I don't know of any likelihood that it will stop being free any time soon. And it may possibly have a resurgence of its own with the switch to digital. If we're wondering how "internet" broadcasters will make money, there's a good example right there of the old tried and true way to do it, through advertising.

    Then there's the new way, the way of many many new artists, like Jonathan Coulton. He just makes everything available for free and gives people the option to pay for it if they want. And many people do. And many people go see him perform also. So he makes his money that way. His internet presence is largely merely an elaborate and very successful advertising scheme.

    The creators of Penny Arcade and PvP and several other prominent webcomics seem able to make a living doing what they love, even though technically people could be stealing their work easily. It just doesn't seem to really be that much of an issue. Yes, most people who try to be webcomics artists will fail at it. But most people who try to start *any* business will fail at it, be they artists or restaurateurs or plumbers.

    I guess I just don't understand where all this hand-wringing of media executives is coming from.

  8. First bit: If the social media field can’t pay for itself by advertising, expect it to fold. If they’re going to charge start charging their users, then they’ll be going into direct competition with the run of the mill server farms. I’m guessing the flexibility of the software options on the server farms will trump the proprietary programs of the social sites. It’s not that hard to go from customizing your social page to building your own webpage – even if you don’t want to learn the underlying code.

    Second bit: I enjoyed the bit where she claimed that the creator won’t make money on the internet but the person who nicked the creator’s work and displayed it on the exact same internet will. Either they can both make money or they both can’t. There’s potential for the thief to make more, of course, but two things work against it: intellectual property laws and fans. Oh, there’s wiggle room in the laws, especially across international borders. But big corporations have as much of a stake in maintaining and expanding those laws as the small-time creator does, and the big boys have the money to make politicians pay attention, even across borders. Fans? Well, they’ll track down the source and give them money, especially if they can get it first from the source, whether it is a big corporation or a small-time creator. Assuming, of course, the creator prices it at something the audience is willing to pay.

    Third bit: The geeks didn’t invent the demand for free content. That was radio, way back in the day. Make this one purchase and you get multiple channels of content for free, 24 hours a day! (Sounds something like the internet, doesn’t it?) It took them a decade or so to figure how to package the content and how to make money off it – and then TV stole their money making model and their content, forcing them to scramble for new content. They’re still around though. Heck, on the average work day, I’m an audience for their advertisers for almost nine hours a day. The internet today looks a lot more like radio and television than it does movies and books, and I’m guessing ads will pay for more of it.

    And I’m well into GYOB territory, so just this fourth bit: Do I pay for the almost two dozen daily webcomics I read? As much as for the radio I listen to. They all have ads. Most only defray the server costs, but the ones with a big enough audience make a profit. And since almost all of them run off their own servers, the creators get to keep every book, television, movie, and video game right, any advertising profit, and complete editorial control over their work. I learned the book publishing business before I went looking at the comic book side – and frankly, most of the floppy publishers suck for creators. Clearly, the financial backers of Zuda think there’s money to be made that justifies cutting paychecks for its creators – but is what the creators are giving away to the backers worth it? It just doesn’t look like it to me. It’s not bad for comics, but if Zuda wants to sell my work to the movies, it should only get an agent’s cut, not the 60% it wants. Me, I’d pay my server costs and build my audience.

  9. Anonymous10:17 PM

    I can only speak for me, personally... but I wouldn't pay a nickel for 99% of the things out there. Just like I wouldn't pay for microsoft office when I can get an open source version for free.

    Also, it might be a strange thing to point out... but the free things on the internet are actually making me buy more than ever before. I download comics and reads, and end up buying things I never ever would have bothered with otherwise. like Hercules and Blue beetle, or a ton of things from independent creator, like the entire series of Seeker.

    So thanks to free (or illegal) downloads my spending on comics have tripled or more. It is the same with TV series, since I work the evening/nightshift I never have time to watch the telly, but a few downloaded episodes shows whether it is worth getting the DVD sets when they come.

    In my opinion, what a LOT of the industry does wrong, is assuming that a download=missed buying opportunity and also that everyone who download something would have bought it otherwise.

    People download tons of crap just because. If they couldn't, most wouldn't bother buying it. It's not just that good.

    The real losers here are the rental market and the television, since people don't want to wait for an episode a week, if they like it they want it all, now.

  10. I've been indoctrinated in the ways of TechDirt and had a big post about infinite goods vs scarce goods written when I decided to look back at your post. I saw it didn't exactly fit, so instead I give you this.

    I don't think the pay for internet portal access stuff will happen. Just look at the New York Times. When they dropped their paywall they got 3 million subscribers and went from 14 million to 17 million.

    But your right. How is a web 2.0 site like twitter supposed to survive. To me the fundamental problem is that companies are doing things backwards, they shouldn't be now saying how do we monetize this, that should have been thought of long ago. But where's the fun in that. As a programmer myself I know I would come up with something cool first then figure out how to get paid. Actually before I figured out how to get paid I think I'd try to figure out how to survive being successful.

    I was going to suggest a solution to the monetize this problem but my brain has stopped working and now I can't think of one. If I do though I'll be sure to share it and see it get shot down by the internet at large.

  11. "This wasn't a bunch of pundits, or what have you. These were the heads of media companies."

    TRANSLATION: Dinosaurs thrashing in their beloved tar pit.

    Free isn't going anywhere. Build better DRM and someone will crack it. Force us to pay for your service and we'll just clone it. Put up walls and the web will route around them. Fight the culture and the culture will forget you.

    The day of the passive consumer is coming to an end. Content creators who want to make a living at it (like me) are going to have to unlearn everything they've been taught.

    Our creative work, in and of itself, has virtually no monetary value... both competition and supply are (for all practical purposes) infinite. What _isn't_ infinite is our attention, and that's where the cash lives.

    My software is open-sourced, but if you want that custom little feature that will make your life complete... pay me to add it. My music is torrented everywhere, but my live shows can only be experienced if you pay me to sit down in front of you. My photo gallery is up on Flickr... if you want in it, pay me to shoot you. My comic is all over Usenet, but only those who pay will get to ask me behind-the-scenes questions and influence the work's future direction.

    Interaction and attention will be the defining commodities of the future. Bet on it.

  12. Charging for anything on the internet is possible, if what you are selling is dominant enough and required. The Washington Post can charge for access to articles, but no other paper can. The New York Times tried to charge for some content and that fell apart.

    Some webcomics may be able to wall themselves up and charge, but not many. Most will still be free because of the economics.

    I read webcomics every morning. If I had to pay for the privilege, beyond seeing some ads, I would probably decide that I really didn't need to start my day like that.

  13. Anonymous11:51 AM

    I think you're somewhat off base here.

    The sites that have been trying to charge a mandatory fee are going bust or going free all over the place -- The New York Times, Salon, and other online newspapers/magazines are giving up in the paid subscription method and instead relying on advertising revenue.

    Another method that's become very popular is the "free samples" approach pioneered by drug dealers -- The site offers a basic service for free (possibly with ads), and then makes its money by offering enhanced services for a fee to those users who have discovered they can't live without the service (Livejournal and Flickr both do this).

    And the last way sites have been making money while still being "free" is by selling something else, and the free online thing is just there to attract attention to the other (tangible) goods they're offering for sale. Which I think is the way comics are going to have to go.

    Considering that ebooks are still not taking off like their proponents think they ought to (because paper books don't need batteries and will work when sandy and damp), I think the business model of the future for the comics business is to release the books online for free or for a paltry subscription fee, and then the publishers (or writers/artists, for indie comics) make their money on the collected paperbacks and hardcover editions.

    An "Icomics" (like Itunes) service will have to compete against bittorrent. Itunes works because the price per song is low enough to make it be that you're paying for the convenience of high-quality mp3s that are properly labeled and catalogued, rather than paying for the music per se. And Itunes works because Apple doesn't care about making a lot of money selling music, rather they're using the music store to sell Ipods. Apply that to comics, and I can see DC and Marvel buying work from artists and writers, putting it online, and seeing if it proves popular for the tentatively announced collected edition. If it does, they commission more issues, and publish a trade paperback. If not, they eat the loss, cancel the collected edition, and move on to the next project.

    Of course, this means that a lot of comic books now being published, which rely on "how does this all tie together in the larger comics universe, and what happens next" for their sales, will be cancelled because not enough people are going to be interested enough in the story or the writing to want to own the collected editions once they have a chance to "find out what happens" online. Somehow I don't see that as a bad thing.

    No matter how much the corporate types want it to not be so, that's what publishing is about -- you try to figure out what will prove popular, and the times you guess right pay everybody's salaries and pay for all the times you guessed wrong.

    Change is frightening, and publishers are going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into this sort of thing, but I think it's the only way they're going to survive.

  14. Hey, this is completely off topic, but as this is the most current post, figured this was the most likely you would visit, Val - You went to PS 139??? Off of Wetherol St & 63rd Drive in Rego Park??

    You are about 2 years my senior and I was only there for 6th grade, but hot damn, did you give me the internet equivelant of an acid flashback. Mr. Usdin, the vice principal, was the biggest prick I ever knew. To this day.

  15. well all, if I'm wrong -- in five years time, let's laugh and all drinks on me.

  16. Have you been keeping an eye on the fuss over Bill C-61 in the Canadian news of late? I think you'll find some interesting sidebar stuff on's coverage.

  17. It's not really the free content that is in trouble, as much as it is the access to the free content; with ISPs like Time Warner and Comcast looking to charge more for higher bandwidth usage.

    Wired did an excellent article on the Free Economy of the web a couple of months back. You can read it here.
    It's an excellent counter point as to why content will be free, and how companies are monetizing it.

  18. Dan,

    I actually went to a PS 139 in Brooklyn, though the idea that there are "grammar schools of parallel earths" throughout the boroughs is interesting.

  19. I read a fascinating essay about copyright recently:

    ...which makes the point that "we already have access to more film, music, text and images than we can possibly incorporate into our lives," and therefore "adding more 'content' will strictly speaking produce no value — whether culturally or economically." So, in fact, creators don't need to get paid--we can survive forever on the art that is already created, plus whatever art that people feel like creating for fun. In some ways, that's sort of sad--I'd hate to tell my four-year-old, comics-loving daughter that she can't be a professional comic book writer because all the comic books we will ever need were written in the 20th Century (not to mention books, music, paintings...). But I think that may be more or less the reality. And, as the essay makes clear, trying to keep people from having access to all the art that's ever been created is not really a viable strategy.