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The Myth of Free; Confessions of a Web2 Native

We may complain about the Web’s shortcomings, but how many of us were complicit?

“I know, because I was there.” One of the advantages of being old (in Internet years) is that I remember life before . . .

In 1999 I was working as a PR manager for the UK’s second largest operator, Cable & Wireless (C&W), supplier (‘partner’ or ‘sucker’ depending on your perspective) to the UK’s first free Web subscription service, Freeserve. Owned and eventually floated by Dixons, Freeserve rapidly became the UK’s number one Internet service provider (ISP).

My colleagues and I watched with incredulity as the company’s valuation rose; remember, free to the end-user didn’t mean free to the ISP. Quite the opposite, as members of our Business Services Division (the department managing C&W’s technology clients) insisted on shouting at us from onto of the tables of that year’s Christmas party. (Incidentally, the same Christmas party to which the police were eventually called – well, the Theobalds Road office was designed specifically so that champagne could be poured from the top story down to the reception area below. It was a matter of time before someone tried to consume it in this way . . . . . I suppose we should have been agonizing about the Year 2000 bug . . ).

Anyway, this is not really my Web2 ‘confession’. By confession, I mean the role that I and many from my generation played in venerating the idea of ‘free’ to such a degree that it ended up meaning precisely the opposite; it cost us our Internet souls.

Free meant ‘connectivity’ (we had nothing before, remember) although the free ISP model didn’t actually last more than a year; we all ended up paying for it after March 13, 2000 when the dot com bubble inevitably burst).

So, the idea of ‘free’ evolved to mean access; to services, platforms, information, tools – from email and portals (remember them?), later to social media and mobile apps.  And boy did we (including me) rinse it . . . .! It was like a form of assisted living on the Web; nobody paid for anything.

Over the years, the stake – the other side of that, apparently trivial, exchange – increased. We moved from sharing our birthdate or email address, to providing access to our entire browsing histories, and to revealing our physical location in real time. The shift was nefarious; we traded almost everything we could – our children’s birthdays (even, photos!), personal memories, thoughts and aspirations that we may never have revealed to our closest family. But what doesn’t cost anything remains free, we deluded ourselves!

Conscientious objection did exist; in some cases, passively, but it gradually became the institutional, from the intervention of the ad blocker to the systematic ignoring of irrelevant content as a type of white noise; the equivalent of static inference when listening to the radio (Web2 natives will know what I’m referring to). 

My favourite statistic from this tacit resistance to the cult of free is from 2017: in March of that year, US Bank Chase Manhattan slashed the number of websites it used for display advertising from 400,000 to just 5,000, without seeing “…any deterioration on our performance metrics…” according to their CMO, Kristin Lemkau.

Later that year, consumer giant P&G revealed that $100m was cut from its digital marketing spend in the second quarter…changing, absolutely nothing. In the words of the group’s CFO, Jon Moeller: “We didn’t see a reduction in the growth rate in value or volume of sales…. What that tells me is that the spending that we cut was largely ineffective.”

But it took a few more years for the futility of free to be revealed in all its glory. In the meantime, Tinder (complete with privacy settings and – yes – a subscription fee) became the World’s top grossing app. As Tinder’s Head of Product and Revenue, Brian Norgard, pointed out on Twitter“(See)…. I told you that subscriptions would be a thing one day.”

What was really becoming evident was that people were putting a price on their privacy – in the case of Tinder, $4.99 per month. The edifice of free was crumbling.

Five years later, the excesses of ‘free’, and the role that my generation played in exacerbating them are becoming evident. We traded a lot for the right to send emails . . .

The arrival of Web3 – and, in particular, the Metaverse – offers us a shot at redemption. It’s the culmination of two apparent opposites: ‘pertinency’ (ownership) and anonymity, and will enable users to define and own their own presence – right down to the last data-byte about them.

But the Metaverse has the potential to be far more than an Internet with the white noise turned down; it all depends on how we use it – or how we decide to use it.

A new era is emerging – potentially more interesting and exciting than the arrival of the Web; and, in the words of Steve McQueen’s Papillon – ‘ Hey,. . . . I’m still here . . .”.

So, it’s left to me to learn from my generation’s mistakes and create a Metaverse that’s better than its predecessor; one that’s here for good.

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