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Biggest Lie The Internet Ever Told: Free Everything, All The Time

Since you clicked your first link, you were promised one thing about the internet: You may have to pay a cover charge, but once you’re in, everything’s free. Except that suddenly doesn’t seem as true anymore. You know what? Good.

Hulu Plus. Paywalls. Fox’s decision to delay new episodes from streaming. Each one a flaming arrow launched straight at the heart of free. Outrage! Except for one thing: content on the internet was never going to be free forever. In fact, it’s never actually been free.

It’s easy to forget — especially since I’d imagine, at this point, the internet has been around as long as most of you can remember — that web-based content is only just now coming out of its infancy. Newspapers and magazines wasted a decade dithering over exactly how much dead tree content to share online, and where, and how. Streaming TV shows and movies? We’ve only had the bandwidth to do that for a handful of years, and the implementation’s been shoddy for most of them.

Plain and simple: online content’s been in beta. Magazines and newspapers needed to figure out exactly how digital layouts differed from print, weigh the right breadth of offerings, learn how to redirect from physical media to the web and vice versa. Studios needed to figure out how many episodes to offer, how deep into the back catalogue to reach, how and where to place ads. We weren’t asked for money any more than you’d bill a guinea pig for running that maze.

So we paid, instead, in wonky UIs and unreliable streams. We also paid by being advertised to, in a dozen different ways: pre-roll, post-roll, pop-up, expanding, display. But it’s hard to keep the lights on with advertising alone, especially four years deep into a massive economic clusternut. And even harder to keep innovating and making things actually worth paying for without subscription revenue. Vicious cycle, and all that.

And you know what? It’s still in beta. All of it. Newspapers, magazines, TV studios, everybody. They still don’t know what they’re doing or if it’ll work (although some of Conde Nast’s apps are certainly getting there). What they do know? They’re finally, for the most part, providing an experience that’s worth something. And that’s not sustainable without revenue to back it up.

Look, I get it: we’ve been torrenting music and movies for a long time, for free. Great! If that’s your bag, there’s not much to stop you. But the idea that what we’re entitled to free content just because it’s on our laptop and not on a disc or in a glossy magazine is absurd. Ideas don’t cost anything, but they sometimes need a Brink’s truck to bring to life.

So when people who invest a lot of time and money creating things put those same things on the internet and ask you to pay for them, by all means don’t. Your choice! But maybe don’t bitch about it, either. That’s just part of growing up.