Information Wants to be Free – Or Maybe Not

In a short article in this month’s Atlantic , Walter Isaacson reminds us that the days of free and unfettered access to web content may be coming to a close:

Ever since the popularization of the Web browser, people have been incanting the mantra of the Whole Earth Catalog guru Stewart Brand: “Information wants to be free.”…We forgot the second half of Brand’s dichotomy: “Information wants to be expensive, because in an Information Age, nothing is so valuable as the right information at the right time.”

…As news organizations slash their staffs, reliable and reported information from trusted sources will remain valuable but may become harder to find, which means that some folks are likely to be willing to pay for good sources of it.

Isaacson argues that the trend toward free content may be reversing.  As more reputable sources, e.g. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times , apply a hybrid model that rewards subscribers with the most interesting or thoughtful content, other organizations are taking note.  Readers have shown that – depending on their purposes – they are perfectly willing to pay for the good stuff, the well-researched, far-reaching, well-written material that they can’t get anywhere else.

School systems routinely purchase subscriptions to content aggregators, those organizations that assemble content from all over the world and provide sophisticated search methods (including Lexile measures) for finding relevant, individualized material on just about any topic.  As Isaacson argues:

Apple’s launch of the iPad gave a glimpse of how cool and convenient a digital magazine or newspaper could be, and how easily a publisher could charge 99 cents or so for it.  People have already begun subscribing to publications on the Amazon Kindle, even though they could get them for free online.

It’s easy to imagine a world where each reader – enabled by their web medium of choice – is able to customize their content preferences and specify their purposes.  From reading entertainment news to posting multimedia projects to engaging in programs that strengthen their command of the English language, it’s easy to conceive of content custom tailored and delivered to each reader based on their choices of what’s important and what’s relevant to their lives.  Such high quality, individualized, and convenient material comes with a price.  But if the current trends are at all indicative, it’s easy to imagine many readers being willing to pay it.

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