The Future Won't Be Free

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Zolli; Zolli is executive director of PopTech, a social-innovation incubator and thought-leadership conference.

Fifteen years and two careers ago, I, like a lot of young, aspiring digirati, migrated to New York to be part of what was to become the dotcom revolution. I worked in the new-media division of a well-regarded communications agency, designing and building Web sites for big corporate clients. Many of these sites were intended to give away huge amounts of content, and I toured the world, making countless speeches extolling the virtues of free-for-all online access. I generally got a warm reception.

In those days I frequently spouted Stewart Brand's maxim that "information wants to be free." And, like almost everyone else at the time, I was quoting only half of what he said. "On the one hand," Brand explained, "information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other." A nuanced thought like this was harder to paraphrase, and selling "free" made us seem like visionaries--radicals even. The fact that the grown-ups looked quizzically at our (largely absent) business models only confirmed how smart we thought we were.

Unfortunately, as we've seen since, for companies whose core product is content--like every newspaper and magazine you read, including this one--the idea that we Internet visionaries sold is a total load of crap. We persuaded executives to compete with themselves online by setting up Web sites that offered for free the same content their staffs labored so strenuously to produce and sell in their print publications. The theory was that companies were supposed to make back the money by, uh, "monetizing the attention economy," or some other similarly vaporous concept, that meant either charging customers later on, or selling advertisements, or both. …