Rupert Murdoch, that sly old rascal, caused a minor Twitter-storm recently, with an interview in which he suggested that News Corp. might remove its websites from Google, which he has described in the past as a “thief” that takes content without asking (Google, for its part, said that it would be more than happy to oblige Rupert’s whims in this regard). As Mike Masnick at Techdirt also noted, Murdoch even went so far as to argue that “fair use” principles were likely illegal, and would eventually be proven so. You have to give the guy credit for knowing a soundbite when he sees one.
Mark Cuban, another crusty old billionaire (although just a pup compared to Rupe), used these remarks as a jumping-off point for his own flight of rhetorical fancy, in which he argued that social-recommendation networks such as Twitter and Facebook were far more important than Google, and that therefore Rupert was right and all the “information-must-be-free bigots” who criticized him must be wrong. But as Steve Rhodes (@tigerbeat) pointed out on Twitter after I posted a link to Cuban’s rant, all the social-recommendations in the world aren’t going to help Rupert if he insists on putting his content behind pay walls.
David Santori made a similar point in a comment on one of my paywall-related posts at the Nieman Journalism Lab. As he put it:
“overlooked in all this is the social aspect: any web item that interests or amuses or intrigues me, I want to share. And if I can’t share it promptly and easily — in an email link or on my blog or Facebook “wall” or in a tweet — I will be frustrated and irked just in proportion to the degree of interest I felt in the item.”
“The NYT registration barrier was in fact a micropayment system, one in which the payment was extracted in the form of the reader’s time and keystrokes to log in whenever they got a link to a useful story.”
I think both David and Steve make an excellent point, one which publishers ignore at their peril. Readers online may not pay you directly with currency, but they pay you with their time and attention (the foundation of the so-called “attention economy”) and it’s in your interest to make things as easy for them as possible — which is just one strike amongst many against pay walls. And if Mark Cuban is right (which I think he is) about social recommendations becoming increasingly important as a way to find valuable content, what happens when someone shares a link to your pay-walled content?
What happens is a potential reader runs headfirst into that wall, or has to jump through all sorts of hoops to read it (i.e., check to see if there is a Google News loophole), and that is a significant disincentive to a) read anything further, or b) share any links themselves. It’s the classic cutting-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face problem: you try to generate incremental revenue through restricted access, but by doing so you deprive your content of even more valuable re-distribution through recommendation networks, which in the long run reduces your traffic and thus your revenue.