This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on weekdays.
We are constantly being pushed to pay for the subscription.
There are all of these paid streaming video and music services out there. News organizations, including the New York Times, want subscribers. Your favorite dating site, email service, or messaging app may also ask you to pay for things that were once given to you for free. Paid subscriptions are nothing new, but increasingly they seem like the future of everything.
However, I wonder how much of the abundance of subscriptions is motivated by the belief that paying this way is the best way for us and the people trying to make a living – and how much is lacking in other options. Google and Facebook have so thoroughly dominated the advertising systems that sponsor information and entertainment that subscriptions may be the only realistic alternative.
Let me ask you to focus on the old days. Much information and entertainment was free or cheaper because of advertising.
You gave some of your time and thought to Pepsi, the grocery store jobs, and the local dealership, and that helped pay for Seinfeld, your local newspaper and music on the radio. This approach had a negative impact, but it made news and entertainment relatively affordable and widely available.
Our attention subsidized most of the things on the early web too. News organizations and other websites competed to attract visitors to their pages as many believed that advertising would be a dominant payment method for the internet economy. (Many people, especially journalists, say this was a mistake.)
It didn’t really turn out that way. Together, Google, Facebook, and Amazon collect nearly two out of every three dollars spent on digital ads in the US. Everyone else is reaching for junk.
The result is that many people and companies have lost confidence that ads can subsidize what we like or generate real income for musicians, writers, podcast hosts, and others trying to make a living online.
The big music companies once hoped that Pandora, YouTube, or other ad-sponsored online listening methods could replace the money people once spent on CDs. No Now record labels are fully committed to subscription streaming. YouTube and Instagram stars are causing people to follow them to subscription services like Patreon and OnlyFans where they can generate more income.
Another view, according to Bloomberg Opinion columnist Alex Webb, recently wrote that Google and Facebook offer us useful free services but make any other digital service more expensive. (And the “free” services from Facebook and Google come at the expense of the data arms race to keep track of everything we do.)
I’m excited to see what happens next to the subscription economy. It’s an opportunity for individuals and companies to connect directly with fans. And we should encourage new ideas that could be better. Why does a web search engine have to be paid for with scary ads?
But just as the advertising industry has made serious compromises, so is likely the case with subscription postponement.
Advertising made it possible to have news and entertainment that anyone could afford. What if we have to buy five subscription streaming services to watch football, Oprah interviews, and other things that you used to see on TV for free? Subscriptions can get expensive.
And I worry that we’ve oversold the ability of people and organizations to subsist on subscriptions. There will be a settlement when a tiny fraction of the people with Twitch streaming and podcasts on Patreon make a steady income and everyone else is looking for peanuts.
Trading attention for things we wanted seemed like fair business for decades – until business turned sour. The same could happen to all of the people and companies that ask us to sign up.
Tip of the week
Avoid zombie subscriptions
One of the problems with the subscription economy is that we sometimes forget to cancel. I did it. Brian X. Chen, consumer technology columnist for the New York Times, explains how we can avoid automated subscription renewals that we didn’t intend:
Maybe you just wanted to subscribe to Audible for a month to listen to this new book. Perhaps you really just wanted to try the Peloton Training app for a free one-month trial. However, most digital subscriptions (including news organizations) take advantage of your forgetfulness and automatically renew it.
When it comes to subscriptions that I only want to use for a short time, I’ve gotten into the habit of canceling the subscription as soon as it starts. That way, I don’t have to forget to cancel and find an unexpected credit card charge. (There’s no downside to quitting early.)
This is how it works with Apple and Android devices:
On an iPhone: Let’s say you subscribe to a streaming app like Crunchyroll, which offers a two-week free trial. Immediately after subscribing, open the Settings app on your Apple device. Click on your name. Tap Subscriptions, choose Crunchyroll, and then choose Cancel Subscription. You will still have access to the service for two weeks.
On Android devices: Let’s say you subscribe to a free trial of Peloton. Immediately after subscribing, open the Google Play Store app. Tap the menu icon, then tap Subscriptions (on some phones it’s labeled Payments and Subscriptions). Here, select Peloton and cancel the subscription. You will still have access to the service for one month.
You can do the same thing if you’ve signed up for a subscription on sites like Netflix.com. The methods are inconsistent, but there is usually an option to view your subscription details in the account menu and then choose an option to change or cancel the subscription.