The Walled Wide Web

There is a situation developing on the World-Wide-Web that runs completely against its ethos.

I am talking about the growing number of news websites that require that you are signed-in, and possibly a paying member to read their articles.

From the web peruser’s point of view, it’s a terrible experience. You might be reading your feed on social media and decide to click on a link to read the actual article (instead of just piling on in the replies) but then, bam:

Paywall.

Instead of navigating effortlessly to an article you were interested in you just hit a wall. Your flow is disrupted. No login? No subscription? You’re out. Go back to where you came from.

The problem here is not that news sites should not get paid (they should), or that I don’t want to pay (I’m willing, and I currently do for a couple outlets), it’s that putting paywalls around entire sites goes completely against the grain of the WWW.

The World Wide Web

The promise of the web is that you can read a document, and in that document there are “links” to further information that expand and go deeper on whatever text was around that link.

It’s an incredibly powerful concept that accelerates the development of knowledge. A link can serve as a path to “more info”, or as “proof is here”, or as “you might also be interested in”, or as “here is where I got the original idea”, etc…

To click on a link is to effortlessly float from world to world because the mind yearns and I made the smallest of physical efforts.

It’s such a powerful thing that people refer to “going down the rabbit hole” when they set out to follow links and get engrossed in a topic that may or may not have been what originally made them curious.

In fact one of three reactions to my post on Elon Musk yesterday was a request that I add links to the things I was talking about! (I wanted to but ran out of time, such is the life of a #100DaysToOffload blogger.)

I highly recommend perusing the original proposal for the web by Tim Berners-Lee. It’s good to be reminded of the original vision for the web once in a while.

The Walled Wide Web

In these pandemic times, there is news coming out of everywhere, lots of which is important and I find myself clicking through to more news sites than usual. Unfortunately, it hardly feels like the golden age of information availability.

During my morning reading time, I might need a dozen different logins to read what I clicked on. What are the odds that I have a login for some news site in Nebraska? Am I going to sit there and type in all my info to create a login just to read one article? No way.

So I hit the back button, disappointed, cheated out of the information I was teased, and that much less confident I know what I need to know.

In the original proposal for the web there is the idea that any page author can create a link to another page, without seeking authorization from that other page’s author. The implication here is that all pages are part of one system, and they can all cross-link without concern for boundaries.

The web is meant to enable the free movement of information travelers. That’s the point. The whole point. Paywalls are like walls along borders: they keep people out, break their flow of travel.

The Solution

I don’t have one, sorry. This is a difficult problem that involves a lot more than just some opinion on what the web “is supposed to be”. News costs money to make, and that’s a huge constraint. Still, a few things are being tried:

No Paywall

The Guardian rejects paywalls and instead make a plea to those who can afford to subscribe. They also have some lower level app-only subscriptions. This is one of the ones I pay for.

MicroPayments

The idea here would be to allow people to pay per-article in some way. It’s probably a terrible idea (warning: Medium link).

Bundles

My friend Josh tweeted this today (and set me on course to write this post):

I end up paying for no media subscriptions because I’m always flipping through headlines and sites but would almost certainly pay $20/MO for deeper all-in-one access.

@joshuakrafchin

Apparently that’s what Apple News+ is. But now you’ve jumped into a different walled garden.

Keep It Open

Like I said I don’t have a solution. I just know you can link to this page if you want to, and I won’t throw a paywall up at you.

PS: Today is the 27th anniversary of TBL putting the www in the public domain.

This was day 3 of the #100DaysToOffload challenge.

Olivier Forget

Los Angeles, USA
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Aerospace Engineer turned sofware developer and bootstrappin' entrepreneur.