If Content's Free, I'm Out of Work

There have been attempts to erect paywalls around some of it — iTunes, The Wall Street Journal, naughty bits. But consult your 15-year-old son or daughter. Content is free. All news and information, all facts and understanding, all knowledge of good and evil are a few clicks away, gratis. The serpent is out of business in Eden. The forbidden fruit is on the house. No penalty is paid for taking a bite.

Does this benefit mankind? It doesn’t benefit me. I was a writer for 40 years. Now I’m a content provider. And content is free. And I wonder — selfishly perhaps — to what degree free content is beneficial at all.

You’ll notice how much smarter everyone’s gotten since WebCrawler was introduced in 1994.

The economy is purring like a kitten.

The debt ceiling debate in the U.S. Congress was over in minutes. The House of Representatives googled “spending.” The Senate googled “revenue.” Then President Obama went to Wikipedia and typed in the algorithm for “balanced budget.”

The EU installed a Fiscal Discipline app on government computers in Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Everything is fine now in Europe.

And Al Qaeda’s leadership realized that, with their capacity to raise money, cause panic and destroy assets, they should give up on terrorism and start a venture capital fund.

I don’t entirely blame the Internet. Wide availability of free content in America dates back to public libraries and compulsory education. Both started in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which is why it’s such a smart place. Representative Barney Frank, mobster Whitey Bulger and presidential candidate Mitt Romney are all from there. A grade-school dropout couldn’t foster a nationwide housing bubble the way Frank did as chairman of the house Financial Services Committee. The Boston Public Library probably has a whole section devoted to living on the lam for 16 years like Bulger. And 86.2 percent of the Massachusetts population is Internet-connected as well. It took Mitt Romney a lot of time playing Angry Birds to come up with what could be a foolproof plan to lose the Republican presidential nomination to a crazy Texan who just might be George W. Bush with Botox and a wig.

In the 20th century, it was radio and television that supplied the free content. They also supplied an example of what happens to the quality of free content when its quantity increases. Originally, radio had a narrow transmission bandwidth. Now there’s a Sirius Satellite Radio station for knitting enthusiasts. Once television had three channels (not including educational TV, which was not included in anyone’s viewing). The number of channels today is higher than, judging by infomercials, viewers can count. In one lifetime we went from Alice and Trixie on “The Jackie Gleason Show” to “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” and from Orson Wells broadcasting “The War of the Worlds” to commentator Glenn Beck living it.

With the Internet, it didn’t take that long. The Internet started out as a means for academics and the military to trade hints about solving Fermat’s Last Theorem and bombing Moscow, and it ended up on your Facebook page. Tasty recipe for potato salad. BTW, that dress makes your butt look big.

Of course, none of this content, no matter how low we value it, is truly free. Be it an ancient Philco radio, a laptop, school taxes for a new gymnasium or a communication satellite, we always have to buy the box content comes in. The problem now is that the unattractive package we’re paying for is Mark Zuckerberg and Arianna Huffington. They and their ilk, an ilk pervading the Web, have developed a free content business model that’s all too appropriate to the Internet.

In February 2011, when Arianna made her $315 million deal with AOL for The Huffington Post and Wall Street was claiming Facebook should be priced at $50 billion, David Carr, who covers media for The New York Times, noted: “Most of the value was created by people working for free.” People like me.

Giving content for free is an age-old commercial strategy — the snake oil pitch. Getting content for free from snake oil makers, selling it and keeping the profits is so new that the old-fashioned property law term for it is stealing.

You let a neighbor have a beanbag chair, pole lamp and shag rug (fair metaphor for the contents of The Huffington Post), and she sells them for $315 million at a yard sale. You’d sue. But The Huffington Post contributors are up in their attics looking for more stuff — fondue sets and macramé plant hangers — to give to Arianna.

Furthermore, in the matter of working for free, I thought we fought a large Civil War about that.

Wikipedia shares the guilt, but at least Wikipedia has the good grace to be — as far as I can tell — a wholly profitless enterprise. It’s a place for the hobbyist, the sort of person who used to build model train layouts or collect old pipe tobacco tins. Better to have him on the Web than on the barstool next to you. Yahoo is not a hobby.

Content freely gotten and freely given has its charm. The Sermon on the Mount was splendid. But, 2,000 years and counting, no one seems to have listened to it yet. On the other hand, admission to the Roman Colosseum was free, while gladiator compensation was, literally, zilch.

If something costs nothing, there’s a tendency to assume it’s worth it. When content loses its worth, we’re deprived of an imperfect, but handy, measurement of whether someone knows something important. It used to be, we had to pay him to tell us.

Motivation for producing content is corrupted. Samuel Johnson, by saying, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” didn’t mean writers made much of it. He meant the other reasons for writing are worse: ego, obsession, infamy, fanaticism. Check any blog.

There is a Gresham’s Law of free content — Gilligan’s antics drive out Ginger. And the more free-of-charge the content is, the more strictly the law’s enforced. Amy Winehouse’s toxicology report (download all 412 pages?) becomes the currency of the Internet realm as opposed to coverage of the famine in … What’s that country in Africa where everyone’s skinny and has a gun?

The threat of amateurism is raised. Not only is the circus free, but audience members are shouting, “I’ll walk that tightrope!” “I’ll tame that lion!” “Hold my beer while I grab the trapeze!”

Social media in the hands of nonprofessionals may be great for getting people together to riot in London, but let’s see the flash mob build a London Bridge.

The pro-democracy (I guess) tumult in the Middle East has been credited to e-communication. But I spent a lot of time there as a reporter, starting in 1984 during the war in Lebanon. Angry crowds came together in an instant, and police and the military shot them long before iPads, Black-Berrys and Twitter were invented. Beirut didn’t even have working telephones. (Incidentally, I covered the Middle East back when journalists were paid to — not just because I was an idiot.)

The Internet’s post-payment worldview is affecting all aspects of life. I find that, as of 2010 (carefully checking my facts on the Web), nearly a quarter of dating couples met for the first time online, as did 17 percent of those who’ve gotten married since 2007. I suspect these digital people don’t understand what marriage can teach us about our relationship with the Internet. Take it from someone who became a husband before connubial bliss was virtual: When everything you’ve got to say is worthless, and everything I’ve got to say is worthless, we’ve been married too long.

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P.J. O’Rourke is a political satirist, humorist and author of many books including “Don’t Vote, It Just Encourages the Bastards,” “Eat the Rich” and “Parliament of Whores.” He was foreign editor of Rolling Stone magazine and is a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly.

Authors

  • P.J. O'Rourke

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute