If you’re into the web then that headline could only be more controversial if I included the word “macaca”. Free is good and human voice is essential are two of the guiding principles of the internet today, but these have slightly stuck in my craw. This post has been brewing for a while, but a conversation with Jeff Jarvis yesterday, when he came to talk to the Project Red Stripe team, gave me the impetus to finish it, partly because Jeff didn’t like it when I suggested these ideas.
Let’s begin : Information wants to be free goes the mantra, so media organisations should drop the paywall. Maybe it does, but that is quite a Web1.0 idea, because it imagines that newspapers, for example, only distribute information. They are outlets, so in that model it can make sense to get as much info out as far as possible. However, lets look at the post-broadcast idea of news sites. Let’s look at communities.
Media outlets have communities floating around them and it is imperative that we enable them (I hear you loud and clear on that Jeff). The value of the community is the quality of the discourse that you enable users to have. In this model free is not, necessarily, the answer. Free means no barrier to entry of the community. Free means no cost sommunication. Those conditions are spam agar.
Anyone who’s MySpaced for a bit will know what happens in that system. And, if you want to receive random emails from bands, standups and webcam girls, it might be the thing for you. Not for most people. This shows that an open, free, system is not always the answer.
Contrast that with the exclusive SmallWorld model (the social network for rich kids), which really limits the amount of invites each user gets. This model enables rich kids, who value exclusivity, to be themselves. They don’t want to sound stupid when they start the group “Don’t you hate it when your chauffeur forgets to chill the champagne”. And they don’t like the hassle they could get elsewhere, so this suits them.
Indeed, when Jeff was talking about Davos, he made the point that the five layers of Swiss police made the quality of the conversation possible. The exclusivity keeps the raff riff out so world leaders can be themselves. (And, Jeff, please correct me if I’ve misrepresented your view point).
Bearing in mind that a media organisation can’t be invite only (or can it?) then a sub is a good way of increasing the quality of the conversation, because you’re not going to spend money to spam. It also gives power to the community leader as any trollish behaviour can be met with a sanction that nullifies the user’s investment – say a three month no comment ban.
So two benefits of a sub are the barrier for entry and the possibility to sanction anti-social communication, all of which leads to a better conversation.
What about anonymity? Now this one is slightly more specific to The Economist, where we have a fine tradition of anonymous writing. And this is something that readers love. The voice of The Economist is renowned for being witty, erudite and concise. But why do we have it on our blogs? Surely we can lighten up there? Anonymity means unaccountability, blandness and nasty power relationship, or so the internetters would have it. At a tactical level it just wouldn’t make sense to have one section of the Economist personal, with the magazine unchanged.
My real problem with Jeff’s POV was when he said the internet expects blogs to be a certain way, so we should do it. To my mind, that’s no reason to do anything. There’s no point losing this great Economist USP just to comply with internet orthodoxies. So the second lesson would be you don’t have to do things the “web2.0 way” just because its expected of you, but adapt these technologies to your circumstances and your community.