A Dirge for Fallen Giants

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From the very moment we started shunting information along copper wires, everything changed. Our ability to reach an audience absent storefronts and gatekeepers in the physical world was amplified, and it would transform a variety of industries in the following decades. The laggards, and those who lacked the vision and foresight to see the coming trend now rest in the graveyard of fallen giants whose signs once gleamed through the sleet and snow and darkness – entities that seemed ubiquitous and permanent, with the power to influence popular culture and reach into the social ethos and mold perception and opinion to a frightening degree.

Photo by Marina Hanna on Unsplash

The first to fall were the music moguls and the video store companies who tried vainly to sound the alarm about the dangers of the free movement of information to their archaic business models. I remember the triumphant glee sputtered onto the media when sharing services like Napster were shut down. With each moment of victory, the panic set in, as something else emerged to take the place of a decaying industry desperately trying to clutch water in a clenched fist. The physical storefronts were the first to fall, and now we are in a new kind of transformation in an industry that has always been integral to public education and the veracity of our electoral system. The news, information media, and magazines of all kinds have struggled to find their place in a world that is increasingly casting physical mediums aside in favor of the digital world. The struggle as they are pulled beneath the waves of relentless technological progress has been increasingly visible with each election cycle as they rail against their less refined competitors. We are now in the phase where they fight – where their struggle turns physical as they demonetize and deplatform their competitors in an attempt to hold fast to their monopoly of influence over opinion. These others are often referred to as fake news, but if a publication seems less credible to the public than poorly sourced articles posted by an eccentric uncle on Facebook, it is not the eccentric uncle with the problem.

There may be a buoy for the media companies to cling to or one that transfers the ability to make a living through the process of informing the public to independent providers. One of the most interesting things I read about Coil was the future ability, if it gained mainstream adoption, to bypass content paywalls – specifically those you find on newspaper, or magazine websites. Writers and media personalities also mentioned potentially bypassing membership fees for services like Netflix, but I’m not sure companies like that will want to open their service up to streaming payment schemes. They seem to make enough money without catering to that market segment. The term subscription fatigue is apropos, as everyone seems to be getting into the monthly payment game, and it is annoying having to manage every app or site or service that wants a monthly cut. Literary and news publications, which are struggling financially, could benefit a great deal from payments streamed to them by interested readers. The Coil model interests me specifically because it somewhat addresses the clickbait crisis that plagues media publications and websites. I talked a bit about clickbait media in an earlier blog. Streaming payments would incentivize interesting and engaging content rather than flashy and misleading titles that trick users into clicking onto their articles for the ad revenue they get when a reader visits their site. The model we have now, at least in internet media, incentivizes getting that click, whatever the cost. The Coil model doesn’t really address the media’s tendency towards drumming up controversy, or inventing stories to generate interest, but that’s beyond its scope and would require an attitudinal shift in the public at large who hunger for the controversial over the informative.

The main competition for Coil in this specific field would be big news aggregators like Apple News, which lets users bypass content paywalls for a subscription fee and pays publications half based on the amount of time users spend on their content. Apple provides an organized and personalized news feed for a subscription of $9.99 monthly, but a Wall Street Journal article indicated that this model isn’t lucrative, and publishers fear that Apple may be cannibalizing their existing subscribers with a system that makes them far less money.

The advantage to a Coil subscription is that it could be used to bypass content paywalls on several different websites and services, but for this model to be lucrative enough to attract big publications like the Washington Post or conglomerates like Condé Nast, the subscription rate would likely have to increase. The advantage that Apple has over a service like Coil is an already large and established userbase that is attached to their hardware and software ecosystem. Nevertheless, Coil’s partnership with Mozilla is an important first step to getting users and content creators engaged with Coil’s revenue model. As to publishers fearing that these alternative revenue streams may cannibalize existing subscriptions, that seems to be occurring already due to a combination of the open nature of the internet and subscription fatigue, which is not likely to get better as different technologies start drifting into subscription models. People’s media habits have changed – they have instant access to a wide variety of articles from publications all over the net. Subscribing to a single newspaper or magazine no longer makes sense for most consumers.

The same issues are starting to creep up with streaming video, and it’s exhausting trying to cobble together a television profile from the variety of new incumbents that want to maintain their own walled garden. We’ve gone from paying for a single cable service with added costs for special interest channels to a hodgepodge of independent services like Hulu, Netflix, Disney, Apple, and Amazon. Almost every app you install on your phone now has a premium subscription service, and if you happen to click on an interesting article online, you’re periodically greeted with a paywall stockade barring you from reading the article. There is a price to pay for this, and it is consumer disengagement. Media companies have already burned their bridges with online advertisements, and consumers are increasingly turning to adblockers and companies like Apple that are blocking web trackers and advertisements with increasing fervor. The subscription model seems to be drunkenly lumbering in the same direction.

Even auto companies have launched subscription services. CNET indicates that BMW, Cadillac, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Audi, and Genesis all offer car subscription services, some bundling insurance into a monthly fee for the use of cars from their manufacturing lineup, perhaps an indication that manufacturers are anticipating a decline in car ownership in the future. This has interesting parallels to the explosion of companies that have launched their own streaming services. As people cut the cord from cable subscriptions, streaming video services have rushed into the space to capture consumer attention. There will be winners and losers based on the exclusive content companies like Netflix and Hulu can provide versus their competitors. The auto industry will likely take a different path. Start-ups like the Canoo electric vehicle have begun to spring up that are offering nearly autonomous electric vehicles for a subscription cost. Once fully autonomous vehicles hit the market, and ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft release subscription services for autonomous pickup, the manufacturers that cannot provide cheap autonomous vehicles will likely wind up like Blockbuster and fade into the ether as consumers will have a cheap alternative to car ownership. With the relentless death march of technological progress, no entity is safe, not even companies that have been a staple of transportation since the inception of the automobile.

The consumer is now bombarded with several different television and movie service subscriptions, app and website subscriptions, gym memberships, fitness gurus – each with their own site which offer a subscription for access to meal plans and workout plans. Meal planners like myfitnesspal also offers a subscription service. Internet and telephone subscribers are increasingly gouged by their service providers. News publications and magazines want their cut too. Car services are now diving onto the dogpile, which will likely send consumers reeling as everyone reaches into their pockets, scrounging for whatever money is left over after food and rent. This nickel and dime economy cannot last. Hopefully, micropayments can offer a way out that is both acceptable to consumers and lucrative for producers.

Header photo by digitalarbyter 🙂 on Unsplash

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