Since I’ve spent a few years encouraging and celebrating the work of free bloggers over the years, Tim Kreider’s piece about professional writing for free (an oxymoron), Slaves of The Internet, Unite!, caused me to re-examine the state of publishing on the internet from a high level.
I believe that for the past decade+, the internet content ecosystem has been a flea market. Its patrons visit regularly and rummage through offerings that are mostly crap, finding a gem from time to time. However, it’s all dirt cheap, so you never have the regret of spending too much and you get a fantastic bargain just often enough to come back and take your chances again. This model attracts power-users who skew young and low-income–people who’d rather spend time than money. The other end of the market–busy people with a healthy income–will take an occasional stroll through the market for kicks, but with time at a higher premium than money, you’ll more often find them making their real purchases at boutiques.
There are likely several reasons why the flea market model dominates content on the internet, not the least of which is that browsing the internet is fast. It takes far less time to rummage through Tweets and links than it does to rummage through antique furniture, so more people have the time to find gems on the internet. As the volume of content increases though, we will reach the limits on time and fewer people will have the patience to find the good stuff.
There is one trend, though, which has had an outsized impact: the audience patterns of the internet, and hence many of the industry’s key trends, can be tracked by following the maturation of the generation born within a few years of 1980, who grew up with the internet.* This generation’s behaviors, needs and desires at each stage of its life mirror those of every other generation before it; they just used the internet in new ways to exercise them.**
In their adolescence in the early 90’s, chat rooms blew up on AOL. Any middle school teacher will tell you that adolescents are great at carrying on mindless chatter with random groups of people.
When this group went to college, they needed music to study by and the dorm rooms happened to have a sweet T1 line with download speeds that crushed the 56k modems we had at home. Cue Napster and the disruption of the music industry.
Upon graduating into the recessions of 2001 and 2003, jobs were scarce. Obviously, the situation was exacerbated in 2007. Throughout their 20’s this crew had little money and plenty of time. However, like most generations of 20-somethings, they had a hunger for news and information and a lot to say about it. Hello, 10 years of an explosion in publishing and tons of free content.
By 2009, this group is entering their 30’s, the decade when you get half-decent at what you do, get a lot more responsibility, a lot less time and a little more money. You’re tired when you get home. Thank god for your Netflix subscription and serial tv.
Now, we enter the stage of houses (can you say, Internet of Things?) and kids. The premium on time is reaching a maximum and the responsibilities are more real than ever before. This generation is about to place a huge amount of value on quality of information, and they will not have time to go hunting for it.
We’re all gonna pay for it.
Mr. Kreider laments that after decades of honing his craft and being published far and wide, editors still try to sell exposure to him as if it’s a currency that’s as valuable as actual money. He asks younger writers to buck the precedent and not give their work away:
Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.
I appreciate Mr. Kreider’s request, but I don’t think it necessary. Our generation is about to lose their patience with the degradation of quality that results from professional writers not being paid well enough to dedicate their full attention to their work. We will be, and in many cases are already, willing to pay for quality. There will always be flea markets, but we’re about to see a preponderance of boutiques at various levels as well. Everything from Crate and Barrel to Sawkille.
Of course, there’s the pesky question of how it’s going to work, but we have some newly bright outlooks in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others. And as history has shown, we’ll figure it out.
* NB: This won’t happen forever. New generations will grow up with new technologies and replace this generation as the trend-setters. These things are cyclical.
** I recognize that the life stages I describe usually correspond to people of a certain income level, education and upbringing and are in the US. But, unfortunately for this generation, those are the people who made up the majority of internet users in the early days. This is all going to change massively as internet access has expanded and is expanding rapidly.