Information is, more than ever, a commodity—and, at that, a nebulous one. At no other time in history has “common knowledge” been as openly, truly common as it is today. Seeking basic information on nearly any elementary subject is as easy as a Google search, and more advanced knowledge has increasingly permeated the internet as well. If someone wants to learn about a given historical event, a troublesome math concept, or basically anything else, information on that subject is generally readily available.
With this shift in information availability, there’s been no shortage of shift in the importance of more traditional forms of information. When was the last time you utilized a traditional encyclopedia (odds are, most of us last used Wikipedia, which is far from traditional and an embodiment of this information shift)? I’ve certainly not needed to within the scope of my lifetime. Newspapers and traditional media, once a staple in the transmission of information, increasingly struggle to stay afloat amongst a sea of free-to-access competitors. Information that is not novel or exclusive has lost its unique drawing power.
Information, now, can be both common or valuable, worth a pretty penny or worthless, depending on its context. If the information offered is unique, or perhaps uniquely valuable, it may be worth someone’s monetary investment to obtain. If it is part of the aforementioned “common knowledge,” there is probably only niche market for its restricted consumption. Even most “news” of the day can be found for free amongst common reporting on Twitter, Facebook, etc.—there are truly few frontiers of information yet to be freely available.
Out of this, there are those in the world that yet seek to monetize the flow of information. Even among an era of common knowledge, in which it would seem that ignorance of some things should be impossible, there is still some information in the world made available only to those willing to pay for it. “Paywalls,” as they’re often dubbed, limit the availability of web-hosted information to those willing to pay the price of admission. In some spheres, they’re considered, at least for now, a fundamental staple (academic journals, for example—the frontier of developments in a new field before their admission to common knowledge). In others, they’re in a contentious place (The Athletic is a sports website that’s utilized the paywall approach, to the chagrin of many a Twitter user).
In some ways, the university system was a glorified paywall for much of modern history. Information, then, was not a freely available thing. The concept of teaching oneself a form of mathematics or history (which can, theoretically, be done today with the rise in availability of things like MIT OpenCourseWare) would’ve been foreign for much of history. Today, more than exclusivity of information, I would argue universities are able to sell confirmation that a student has demonstrated some level of mastery of the corresponding information—but, that is probably a different tangential issue.
Personally, as the administrator of such a Paywall, it’s interesting to think about their place societally. Over at SixPrizes, we have a pretty simple idea: we assemble a staff of writers who have demonstrated excellence in the Pokemon Trading Card Game to share the best of their thoughts on the game and its environment at a given time. This staff writes articles that help subscribers elevate their own knowledge and abilities relative to the game—for a fee.
I was inspired by a recent post in a Facebook group about the game to write this today. That user asked a pretty inconspicuous question:
Legitimately curious: I’ve been guilty of this in the past (I get it now from a demand perspective), but what reasons do people have for being against paywall articles?
Not trying to start a fire. I’m just curious if there’s a single issue people have with them, or if it’s multiple things.
That generated a mild firestorm of responses, of varying degrees of opinion, from its readers. I believe the idea and value of Paywalls as a concept is sometimes misunderstood by some as greedy capitalists trying to abuse the general population. And sure: if there is no value behind that wall, perhaps it is an abuse! But, that would be up to a consumer to decide. I pretty strongly deny the idea that information restricted in this way is inherently evil, as it seems to sometimes be cast. So, I wanted to write this today to lend a Wall-builder’s perspective to the Pokemon TCG Community and explore the concept more generally itself. As this piece is the opinion of its author alone, and perhaps intended for a more general audience, I’m specifically not publishing on SixPrizes, where I believe it’d be seen as an implicit justification of what we do. That’s not my goal here.
Anatomy of the Wall: +/-‘s for Reader and Writer
The Possible-Payoff Paywall: For a Reader
I’ve established that I run a website called SixPrizes, and it charges people to read stuff about what seems like a children’s card game on the surface. If you’re not immediately familiar with the context here, this probably sounds pretty crazy to you. Why would anyone do that?
In theory, improving one’s own abilities and odds of success in the Trading Card Game’s competitive circuit can come with payoff beyond intrinsic satisfaction: each Regional Championship offers up to $50,000 in prizing (depending on attendance), and the World Championship offers a bounty of $25,000 to its winner each year. Mixing in the other yearlong incentives that can arise, such as travel awards and stipends to destinations around the world, folks definitely have an opportunity to get something from their investment in bettering themselves at the game.
I don’t really want to get into the in-depth explanation of the specifics of the card game I’d need in order to justify my claim that players can get better from reading, but in short: SixPrizes offers that opportunity through in-depth analysis of different competitive options a person might want to consider. In essence, the theory is that pros that know what they’re doing are offering their thoughts, which helps the reader improve their own perspective and performance.
Consuming this content, can help someone improve their performance, and in this case, there’s an established potential payoff at the end of the day. Now, don’t get me wrong: very few players manage to be in the black at the end of the day. I’m only aware of two or three people total that play the game as their only source of income. For the rest, it’s about a minor investment (compared to other point-of-entry costs) leading to an exponentially greater payoff (and running way closer to the black in what’s otherwise a hobby).
The Possible-Payoff Paywall: For a Writer
The Problem of Compensation & Trust
So, if what I’ve said is true and there’s a payoff available, why would anyone be willing to give up the advantage incumbent in minimizing the availability of information? Money. For many, it’s an extra source of income that helps subsidize the hobby itself. It’s not rational for someone to give away their best ideas without a form of compensation, or even for too little compensation. This is a fundamental problem for the idea of pay-for-advantage as a structure: is the guy on the other side of the keyboard really giving anything worthwhile?
I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I want to cover why a Paywall is necessary over an advertisement system, as some folks like to propose: running advertisements on the internet isn’t the boon some people want to think it is. While I’m not prepared to disclose actual view figures for a website like ours, I can absolutely promise ad revenue would not subsidize an operation of the form that we run. The math simply isn’t there.
Now, back to the issue of trustworthiness: in the olden days, where SixPrizes was the only competitor in its field, this was something incumbent on its founder to determine. He had to balance the price to get the right information out there, and in some cases had to enact staffing changes to achieve better overall site performance. (I wrote for the website before I managed it—I know I personally found the $ range quite sufficient to incentivize me to make my content worth reading.) These days, with more websites trying to get in on the act, competition itself is a form of accountability. If a website is dishonest consistently, the consumer will eventually drift away.
I maintain figures on how often our staff makes choices that reflect what they’ve recently written, and am personally very comfortable with where we’re at. I can’t speak to my competitors, though!
The Possible-Payoff Paywall: The Mutual Benefit
The Value of Exclusivity
On a theoretical level, limiting the readership of an article comes with two very, very interesting dynamics:
- Writers know they’re writing for a more limited audience, and as such can be less concerned about their content coming back to personally “bite” them during an upcoming event. In a large-scale tournament, odds are a writer isn’t going to be directly impacted by something a reader learned—as long as readership stays somewhat small.
- Readers can know the information they’re subscribing to is somewhat more exclusive. If everyone in the world paid for the service, it would be useless. Less readers means there’s more of an “edge” than what comes from consuming purely free content.
The latter argument, I think, is critical in the existence of Paywalls for competitive benefit. In a mass-media age, there’s content everywhere about everything. The value of content, then, is derived from how exclusive, correct, or unique it is. If everyone watches a given YouTube video, everyone is going to be on the same page in terms of its content. Staying ahead of the curve, then, necessitates content with greater exclusivity.
It’s worth noting that pricing has a real impact on perception. I’ve read plenty of commentary complaining about the price of the Paywalls themselves, and I have no issue confirming that SixPrizes is the most expensive article website in its market (and, as I’ll get to in a bit, our Paywalls as a game are generally higher-priced than those in more purely discretionary categories, like sports coverage). I think, though, the pricing situation plays into both of the above benefits pretty well.
The Paywall as a Leisure Activity
In terms of other societal Paywalls, such as those I’ve mentioned before, there are numerous reasons someone could be paying to be in the know. In the case of sports and athletics coverage, it could range from supporting a particular content creator’s work to simply wanting to have the latest in that field’s information. In terms of news, sometimes the best in coverage is beyond the free-verse, which can be something worth paying for. Unlike the prior type of Paywall I’ve discussed, there may or may not be an incumbent payoff for the subscriber. Perhaps, as an example, an investor needs to be current on the latest in financial news—that’d certainly involve an inherent need that could require moving through a Paywall.
I think it’s notable that the price on this sort of broad appeal content is likely to be lower than something like what we run over at SixPrizes. This is a pretty simple economies-of-scale issue: with a greater customer base, the price can be lower to facilitate a different price vs subscriber count ratio. In contrasts, in such a niche field, the losses incurred by lowering the subscription cost overall would probably not be made up by increase in raw subscriber count.
And, for a writer in most of these examples, that writing will be as an employee, so the “benefit” there should be obvious.
Wrap-Up: The Nature of a Wall
This probably isn’t as far-encompassing as I intended it to be when I started, but I do wish to avoid reaching a word count where folks immediately turn away. Nevertheless, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at how and why the Paywall works for the Pokemon TCG/SixPrizes and a contrast to more mainstream content Paywalls.
I could see a future where information flows truly freely, without constructs like this, but I think we’re still a distance from that. The 21st Century has done a great job of making everyone an expert at everything—or, so it seems if you listen. Currently, I’d argue that specialization and expertise are at a low point in their societal importance: it seems that something shouted loudly matters more than something said intelligently. There are, to say the least, some high profile societal examples, which is unfortunate.
It’s key to remember that I’m not a lawyer and probably would not have good legal advice for you. If you wanted some tips on some stats related to a certain aforementioned card game, though, I probably have you covered more than even most in the community. I think the Paywall is almost a way of maintaining that structure: it inherently demands an acknowledgement that the subscriber knows less than the writer about the topic. Perhaps that’s why I, even before I maintained one, understood and appreciated their place in discourse. But, furthermore, I suspect this is the source of some of the enmity I see thrown toward their mere existence.
I believe, at least in the immediate term, this erosion of the perceived importance of expertise is probably not going to slow down. In this way, the Paywall can be accurately categorized as a relic of a dying idea. I believe, though, it’s an important one nonetheless, and hope I’ve been able to shed a bit of light on my perspective to that effect today.