If you’re not familiar with the details of what the term “zero rating” means you’ve likely still encountered it in some manner. The concept has been applied by wireless carriers to help lure customers concerned that streaming services, social media and so on are eating too much of their monthly data allocation. So a company like Verizon will sell its services by promising customers usage of something like Netflix or Spotify won’t count against their data package. Those select services are given a “zero rating” classification, with the costs absorbed/subsidized by one or both companies involved.
Such practices have raised the ire of those in favor of net neutrality protections because it’s the kind of deal that can only really be made by companies of scale. An upstart video service might not be able to afford such an arrangement and so will be used less often than Netflix, which can. The wireless companies are choosing winners and losers based on who can pay and while it seems like such deals would be good for customers, they’re actually not.
When it comes to media paywalls such arrangements have been in place for years. It used to be that articles on sites like WSJ.com were locked to non-subscribers, but could be accessed via search. So if you clicked a headline and found you couldn’t read it, you could copy the headline, paste it into Google and find a link that worked. As more companies paywalls are erected by more companies, such workarounds have been eliminated or discontinued.
Medium.com has, for a while now, allowed publishers using that platform to decide to make some articles available only to those paying a $5 monthly membership fee that’s not publication or author specific but applicable to the entire site. Non-paying members could access up to five locked articles a month before they were shut off, though they could still view unlimited articles not put behind the metered paywall.
Now founder Ev Williams is changing that, announcing recently that all stories would be free without limit…as long as the referring click came from Twitter. Coincidentally, Williams was also a cofounder of that social network.
That sounds like a good deal for Twitter users, who no longer have to worry about being hit by a “you’ve read as many stories as you can” message when they click on a Medium.com link.
Unstated by Williams is how that change – just the latest pivot in the site’s monetization strategy – will impact publishers. Medium has raised $132 million in funding since it was founded in 2011, most recently doing a Series C round in mid-2016, and has plans to do more with a valuation of $600 million. So it’s not clear how much cash it has on hand given it can’t find a revenue model that works for more than eight months at a time, epochs marked by the appearance of glowing profiles of Williams that talk at length about his desire to save journalism, the internet or both.
In May of last year, coinciding with yet another change, the title of the latest such profile was the ambitious “And for His Next Act, Ev Williams Will Fix the Internet.” Disappointingly, this latest change is just the kind of thing that will destroy the internet.
Any time you give preferential treatment to one platform or another, something dies. Wireless companies are killing competition in media services by offering the biggest players in a category zero-rating classification on their networks. Facebook is killing legitimate news and civil discourse by prioritizing sensationalistic trash.
If there was a heyday on the internet, it was the early days of Web 2.0 when links were love and we embraced the open web and all the possibilities and potential it offered. One of the best examples of that was Blogger, the first publishing platform founded by Williams, since unlike other early blog software it didn’t require installation on a server.
Instead Williams wants to make Medium into an extension of Twitter, it seems. That’s unsurprising given his involvement with both, but by extending a benefit to Medium that’s not available to others he’s 1) seeking to prop up a product (Medium) that has struggled to find an identity over the last several years, unable to define itself as a publisher or platform, and 2) seeking to play a role in deciding who wins and who loses on the internet, since with such a system in place people may be more likely to click on a Medium link than to one on The Washington Post or other sites where a fully-functional paywall is still intact.
Those aren’t the sort of decisions that should be made by someone who wants to fix the internet. They are the sorts of choices, though, made by someone with a vested interest in advantageously changing the experience on only a portion of the web. It’s the same sort of thinking shown when Facebook introduces Instant Articles to siphon traffic away from publishers. That wasn’t good for the open web and neither is this.