Friday, June 06, 2008

You get what you pay for -- is this true in Cyberspace?

So, they say, you can’t get something for nothing. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So, if there is too much traffic on a superhighway, charge a toll. I notice that VA 267 (the expensive, partly private toll road heading west past Dulles Airport) is usually much less crowded than the free and more or less parallel I-66 a few miles away.

The airlines are exercising this lesson. In the current fuel climate, they can hardly afford to carry excess capacity, which for decades carried the leisure public in piggeyback fashion. Now, business travelers may no longer be subsidizing vacationers.

And we’ve all been reminded of this basic lesson in economics with the subprime crisis. I recall hearing a guy say on Dr. Phil, he didn’t need to bother with college and studies when he could flip houses. Now he is two million in debt at 23. Despite all the pretense of reform since the 1929 crash and New Deal, we keep on seeing Ponzi schemes crash and burn.

So the case seems with the Internet, which has given various people the opportunity to try various business leveraging schemes with little investment, or simply express themselves without going through “political” channels managed by family or business bureaucracy. The efficiency in self-expression is a good thing, and it’s true that a sometimes a free market in the grassroots area can produce real successes and stars, as blogger Heather Armstrong proved. But the lack of stepwise requirement and oversight can also attract a lot of bad actors, certainly when some see infinite opportunity from a free resource, with activities that are illegal or that certainly jeopardize the rest of us.

We’ve learned that lesson with email, although we don’t seem to be very close to charging a micro postage fee for each email sent to discourage spam. We find that offering legal, user-friendly and reasonably priced download services for movies and particularly music will help prevent piracy. Now, we wonder if the same concept could apply in different ways to Internet hosting and particularly free service blogging portals (like this one).

There has been a lot of noise in the literature recently about spam in blogs, on whether captchas stop it, and the use of automated robots to disable or remove them, sometimes, according to some individual bloggers, snaring legitimate blogs (as "false positives"). The problem seems like a serious problem for the business model that underlies free blogging portals. It is presently difficult for customer service, given the best of intentions, to manually review all of the legitimate complaints, and it is embarrassing to individual publishers, some of whom may be driven away to paid hosting. Some literature, such as pieces by Evan Synder on May 30 and June 2 on his (regular site and Wordpress) blog have expressed the libertarian “get what you pay for” idea: if you use someone else’s free service, don’t expect control of what happens to what you publish. But even with rented shared hosting spaces, there can occur other kinds of TOS problems, such as false DMCA “safe harbor” takedowns for incorrectly alleged copyright infringement.

This reminds me of a debate that goes on about the ethical legitimacy of self-publishing. If a regular New York house publishes your book, it is likely to pull the book if it doesn’t make money quickly enough. If you publish it yourself, you can generally keep it out as long as you want if you have the resources, which in the past dozen or so years have not required much expense (desktop publishing and even book manufacturing costs went down quickly in the 1990s while the Internet and PC “revolution” boomed).

But, as noted, any cyberspace enterprise that offers essentially "free entry" (and requires very little individual capital) attracts a lot of abuse and “freeloaders” who can undermine the reputation of the service and of the legitimate work from other publishers or writers who use the service. In different ways, these problems can affect blogging portals, video services, social networking sites, and conventional shared hosting services. (I’m not trying to bash any one of them in particular.) Particularly in the social networking site world, there seems to be a psychological and social issue, too, that people want to substitute a “fantasy” world for a real one that expects people to interact with others (in person) and sometimes compete with them on unfavorable terms. It’s possible that economic and political forces in the future may make these services much less attractive than they are now, partly because of these problems.

It does seem that, just as with email, it would be possible to propose that blogging (and video) portals impose a micro-charge per posting, or possibly expect bloggers to pay for regular hosting services for archiving. (There are some limits and charges with images and video now.) So the free market might have a solution for some of these problems.

But it’s also possible to imagine an economic and legal environment in the future where even self-publishing ventures won’t be able to stay up without getting measurable financial results.

I gave some more details on my own Wordpress blog (go to Let me add that I am semi “retired” and that I do not work for an ISP or any search engine company, nor have I ever. I did work for NBC in the 1970s as a mainframe programmer analyst. And I do believe I have something to offer ISP’s, search engine, and self-publishing facilitators like iUniverse, Google, or any of the major media news companies and studios. So I plug away at these problems in my own way with my own research. Some day, and perhaps soon, I may approach one or more of them. Maybe it’s time to go back to work, when I'm 64.

(Factual note: I did have a problem early on May 30; for about an hour or so, a number of my blogs gave DNS errors [browser can't find domain at all] even though I could sign in and my dashboard was normal. I wrote an entry in the Forums and in about twenty minutes the problem was fixed and the blogs were loading again.)

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