Clay Shirky on The Times Paywall

A couple of days ago The Guardian interviewed Clay Shirky, thereby giving him great, and free, publicity for his latest book. I mention this purely because Shirky is reported as saying:

… that people are more creative and generous than we had ever imagined, and would rather use their free time participating in amateur online activities such as Wikipedia – for no financial reward – because they satisfy the primal human urge for creativity and connectedness.

The bit about no financial reward doesn’t apply to Shirky himself: his book costs £20.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favour of people earning a living from their writing activities, as long as they don’t fall into this trap of suggesting that if the writing is on the internet, it should be free. Indeed, I’ve noticed this about most people who say all content should be free: they either charge for their own or they earn a salary, meaning they don’t have  to charge the consumer directly. It also means, of course, that they draw the line at providing their own expertise for free all the time.

Shirky says:

Just as the invention of the printing press transformed society, the internet's capacity for "an unlimited amount of zero-cost reproduction of any digital item by anyone who owns a computer" has removed the barrier to universal participation…

But the cost is not  zero. Maintaining a web presence costs money unless you don’t mind putting up with loads of advertisements or you have the technical ability and time to maintain your own server or you have some benefactor, such as an employer, who provides the stuff free of charge. Even then, there’s a cost somewhere down the line in terms things like of backup storage and antivirus protection. And since when was someone’s time free? See also this paper about the costs of digital storage for the British Library.

Shirky seems to have a rather bizarre view of business:

Here's what worries me about the paywall. When we talk about newspapers, we talk about them being critical for informing the public; we never say they're critical for informing their customers. We assume that the value of the news ramifies outwards from the readership to society as a whole. OK, I buy that. But what Murdoch is signing up to do is to prevent that value from escaping. He wants to only inform his customers, he doesn't want his stories to be shared and circulated widely. In fact, his ability to charge for the paywall is going to come down to his ability to lock the public out of the conversation convened by the Times.

Actually, every business tries to limit consumption of (the bulk of) its products to its customers, otherwise it wouldn’t be a business. That's how businesses work: by charging some people in exchange for providing a product or service, and then not supplying it to people who don't pay. The first group of people is known as "customers" or "clients". What we seem to have here is yet another example of muddled thinking, as also exemplified by Chris Anderson's Free, which I discussed here.

Economics 101 states that the more effectively you can prevent people in group A, the customers, from providing the product or service to group B, the non-customers, the more you can charge for the service. Murdoch's problem is that anyone can share the content of the The Times, if not the articles themselves, with anyone else. But there's nothing evil or wicked about his wanting to "prevent that value from escaping", unless you take the view that it's fine for some businesses to want to do that but not others. How would you justify that?

You can read the interview here. Be sure to read the comments too.