The Internet is a vast and powerful resource where an individual
can gain access to any subject matter, groups of people with similar
interests, or different types of entertainment. Such information and
opportunity is not free, however, since purchasing a computer, modem
and internet access is involved in the first instance.
Yes, there is much that is free to browse and explore on the web
(as indeed there should be) but "getting to it" does cost.
However, the provider of that information does not directly
benefit from that expenditure. To use the supermarket analogy, they
provide goods which are fresh, enticing and easy to find. They want
to appeal to their shoppers, and provide the best customer service
possible. Now, as consumers, paying for the means to get to the
supermarket (by any means, and with ancillary costs such as car
insurance and so on) shouldn't we be able to get our groceries for
No, probably not. We accept that we pay for the means to shop and
then for the products we want.
What about libraries? Don't libraries provide free information to
us? Well, many research libraries do charge for the information or
other resources they provide, and most public libraries are paid for
through taxes and via charges for delayed returns, photocopying and
so on. Assuming no other services are used, the library still isn't
so much free, as free at the point of service, but paid for behind
the scenes. Someone, somewhere, somehow pays for the books, the
staff, the equipment, the building... the very real things we visit
What about clubs we join for entertainment or for hobbies or
interests? Well, often these are paid for via subscriptions or on
the basis of use. There are few organisations or clubs that we can
join without there being some form of cost. Even those provided by
public bodies are often only subsidised, with the rest of the income
generated via other means such as taxation. We almost expect to pay
membership fees in return for the "belonging" to the club, for the
use of its facilities. In some cases the paying of a membership is a
positive bonus since it provides cache.
The Internet is incredibly transparent. In the world of
supermarkets, libraries and clubs there are very real, practical,
economic arguments for paying for services and content. In the real
world, we acknowledge that we have to pay for the services which are
provided to us, or we don't choose to use those services. In most
cases, there are costs which are obvious to us that our fees cover.
Wear and tear on buildings. Room hire. Equipment. Materials. And so
The very transparency of the web and online communities is its
downfall in the argument about paying for content or access to
services. Since a web site appears disconnected from its cost
centres (the server it runs on, the domain name fees, the designer's
fees, etc.) then asking someone to pay for it directly is
notoriously difficult. Chat rooms, message boards, and the
individuals who populate them seem also to simply exist without
seemingly costing anyone anything. Online advertising as a means to
provide revenue is one solution, but the market at present is
extremely depressed, and there are also difficulties in balancing
the presence of advertising with end-user expectations and
There a great many web site communities which provide valuable,
entertaining, informative, supportive and engaging content, company
and communication for their users, often without charge. Many are
run by owners and staff who do so for other reasons than the
economics. It would be a great shame, however, to see these sites
disappear because the burden of expenditure falls on them and there
is seemingly no means to recoup it.
The Internet is changing, but until there is a shift in the ways
in which many millions of people approach their use of the web,
there will be many web site owners who will continue to scratch
their heads when thinking about how to gain value from the web sites
they run. In a tight economy this is even more of a problem.
We wish you all the very best with your community (and if
appropriate, revenue-generating) endeavours and we welcome your
contributions and thoughts on this issue or any other!