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Monday, November 29, 2021

Google and Facebook Killed Free

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We’re constantly being nudged to pay to subscribe.

There are all those paid streaming video and music services. News organizations, including The New York Times, want subscribers. Your favorite dating site, email service or messaging app might also ask you to pay for stuff you once got free. Paid subscriptions are nothing new, but increasingly they seem to be the future of everything.

I do wonder, though, how much of the subscription abundance is motivated by a conviction that paying for stuff this way is the best path for us and people trying to earn a living — and how much is a lack of other options. Google and Facebook have so thoroughly dominated the advertising systems that sponsor information and entertainment that subscriptions may be the only realistic alternative.

Let me ask you to cast your mind back to the olden days. Lots of information and entertainment was free or less expensive because of advertising.

You gave some of your time and brain power to Pepsi, the supermarket’s job listings and the local car dealership, and that helped pay for “Seinfeld,” your local newspaper and music on the radio. There were negatives to this approach, but it made news and entertainment relatively affordable and widely available.

Our attention subsidized most things on the early web, too. News organizations and other sites competed to attract visitors to their pages, as many assumed that advertising would be a dominant way to pay for the internet economy. (Many people, particularly in the journalism profession, say that this was a mistake.)

It hasn’t really turned out that way. Google, Facebook and Amazon together pull in nearly two out of every three dollars spent on digital ads in the United States. Everyone else is grabbing for scraps.

The result is that many people and companies have lost faith that ads can subsidize the stuff we like or generate real income for musicians, writers, podcast hosts and others trying to make a living online.

The big music companies once hoped that Pandora, YouTube or other methods of online listening sponsored by ads could replace the money that people once spent on CDs. Nope. Now record labels have gone full-bore into subscription streaming. YouTube and Instagram stars nudge people to follow them to subscription services like Patreon and OnlyFans, where they can generate more income.

Another way of looking at this, the Bloomberg Opinion columnist Alex Webb wrote recently, is that Google and Facebook are giving us useful free services, but they made every other digital service more expensive. (And Facebook and Google’s “free” services come at the cost of the data arms race to track everything we do.)

I am excited to see what happens next with the subscription economy. It’s an opportunity for individuals and companies to connect directly with fans. And we should cheer on new ideas that might be better. Why does a web search engine have to be paid for by creepy ads?

But just as the advertising economy has had serious trade-offs, the subscription shift probably does, too.

Advertising made it possible to have news and entertainment that everyone could afford. What if we need to buy five subscription streaming services to watch football, Oprah interviews and other stuff you used to watch on TV for free? Subscriptions can get expensive.

And I worry that we’ve oversold the ability of people and organizations to make a living from subscriptions. There will be a reckoning if a tiny fraction of people make steady incomes from Twitch streaming and podcasts on Patreon, and everyone else is hustling for peanuts.

Trading attention for things we wanted seemed like a fair deal for decades — until the bargain soured. The same thing could happen with all those people and companies asking us to subscribe.


Tip of the Week

One annoyance of the subscription economy is that we sometimes forget to cancel something. I’ve done it. Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, tells us how to avoid automated subscription renewals that we didn’t intend:

Maybe you meant to subscribe to Audible for only a month to listen to that new book. Maybe you really wanted to check out the Peloton workout app only during a free one-month trial. But most digital subscriptions (including news organizations) take advantage of your forgetfulness and renew automatically.

When it comes to subscriptions I want to use only for a short time, I’ve gotten in the habit of canceling the subscription immediately after beginning it. That way, I don’t have to worry about forgetting to cancel and finding an unexpected credit card charge. (There’s no downside to canceling ahead of time.)

Here’s how to do that with Apple and Android devices:

On an iPhone: Let’s say you subscribe to a streaming app such as Crunchyroll, which offers a two-week free trial. Immediately after subscribing, open the Settings app on your Apple device. Click on your name. Tap Subscriptions, select Crunchyroll and then select Cancel Subscription. You will still have access to the service for two weeks.

On Android devices: Let’s say you subscribe to a free trial of Peloton. Immediately after subscribing, open the Google Play Store app. Tap the Menu icon and then tap Subscriptions (on some phones it’s labeled Payments and subscriptions). From here, select Peloton and cancel the subscription. You will still have access to the service for a month.

You can do the same thing if you signed up for a subscription on websites like Netflix.com. The methods aren’t consistent, but there’s usually an option to see your subscription details under the account menu and then select an option to change or cancel the subscription.

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