Saturday, March 17, 2012

Paid Speech

I celebrate a birthday tomorrow. I continue to be older than than the defining innovation of my era, the World Wide Web. As such, I recall many of the discussions surrounding this innovation as it advanced into the mainstream. I remember struggling in the pre-Google days to locate relevant information. I remember the cumbersome load times of the dial-up days. I remember being totally confused by this 1994 commercial starring a pre-teen Anna Paquin. And I remember these as the two major questions about the web in the mid 1990s:

1. Will this medium improve our democracy, expanding the public square and giving a greater voice to those who wish to enter the marketplace of ideas?
2. Will anyone ever make money of off websites?

A few years later a third question was added ("Can the free circulation of copyrighted material be stopped?") Several years later, I think we are still searching for definitive answers to all these questions.

Although people are certainly wiling to use the web to make purchases, I think there is still a general consensus that intellectual content should be freely accessible. Newspapers and other content-providers are now setting up "paywalls" in the hopes that the public will be willing to shell out for what used to be free. Most sites, including the most popular (Facebook, Youtube, Google) rely on advertising, even as people decry the supposed invasion of privacy of the most lucrative targeted advertising.

Meanwhile, the web has certainly allowed commentary to flourish. But anyone who has waded into the cesspool of Internet commentary knows that it is not the ideal public sphere envisioned by philosophers like Habermas.

I think most would separate the above as separate problems and separate issues. But I'm not so sure. I'm certain that a newspaper website trying to sell its content would never venture to try to promote reader comments among the package it presents to readers. But could the comments be hurting the perceived value of the website? If an upscale dining facility also had a bar with a bunch of drunks constantly yelling at each other, would that affect the public perception of the dining experience being offered, no matter how good the food?

Alternatively, what if the facility's bar stocked only premium, high quality, expensive beverages? You may still have people consuming drinks, but chances are the bar's clientele would improve, and quite possibly influence the overall perception of the facility for the better.

The problem with quality control on the Internet is that there is no problem of scarcity. Because there is no limit, there is no value. And the easiest way to impose limits and create value is to start charging for it. What if, in order to post an online comment, one had to pay a one dollar user fee?

I guarantee that the quality of a discussion would improve if the participants were forced to make some kind of investment, however minimal, in order to join in. Of course, some may argue that when we are literally limiting free speech, we are violating one of our most sacrosanct national principles. I would argue that this reveals a misunderstanding of what free speech is. I'm not advocating that one be forced to pay a user fee to exercise speech, but rather, the privilege to exercise speech on another's forum.

And not only would the quality of discussion be raised, perhaps a viable revenue stream for content providers could be realized. I'm so confident that this is a good idea that I'd be willing to pay a dollar to publicly suggest it.


Post a Comment

<< Home