Last night, after reading Clay Shirky’s latest article about why paywalls don’t work, my wife asked me a deceptively tricky question: Would I pay money for news?

I mumbled and bumbled about it for a while and then said that, while I hope somebody pays for news so that society can continue to have the services of full-time journalists digging up stories, I personally would probably not pay for news.

I’m not proud of saying that. I think I probably should read news, in order to be an informed citizen and all that, just like I should eat less bacon and more cauliflower, but an honest evaluation of my laziness and bad habits tells me that if I had to pay to read news, I would just ignore news and read more junk-food content instead. (Besides, news is depressing! Who wants to pay to be depressed?)

So then she asked me, what sort of internet content would I pay for, in an alternate universe where web content cost money?

I’ve been thinking about that question all day. It would be a very different universe. I would probably pay for programming language documentation and API documentation, if I had to, because I need it to do my job. I might pay for Wikipedia, since I find it both useful and entertaining. There’s a few webcomics I’d be willing to pay for (maybe more for the sake of supporting artists I like). In fact, if I paid for Gunnerkrigg Court or Erfworld, I’d probably read them more regularly than I do, to feel like I was getting my money’s worth.

But a lot of the sites that I currently visit on a daily basis are just ways to kill time, or get a brief chuckle, or see what people are arguing about today. If they went behind paywalls, I’d stop visiting and I’d forget all about them within a month. I’d probably read a lot more books, so I might even be mentally better off.

But that’s all assuming that a pay-for-content Web would have basically the same content as the real Web does. That probably wouldn’t be true. Would Wikipedia have ever gotten started on a pay-for-content Web? Would single-creator, no-advertising-budget webcomics or blogs ever be able to find an audience at all if they weren’t giving their content away for free? What would entice potential readers to look behind the paywall in the first place?

Conversely, there may be forms of content we don’t see on the real Web that we’d see if paying for content was the accepted norm. Maybe it would be standard practice for bands to sell their music as downloads, making a living without ever signing to a label or burning a CD. In real life, this happens rarely enough that Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” was a newsworthy event. Maybe web-based “TV” series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and The Guild would be exemplars of a flourishing genre instead of weird one-off orphans.

Anyway, history has happened in such a way that the Web we have is one where content is free, and I see no signs of that changing in a serious way any time soon. Nevertheless, I think it’s an interesting thought experiment. It’s worth thinking about what websites you’d be willing to pay for, even if only to help clarify your own relationship to the words you stuff into your eyeballs.

So here’s my questions for you:

  1. Are there any websites you read that you’d be willing to pay one dollar (or 100 yen, or 7 RMB, or whatever the equivalent in your local currency) to keep reading?
  2. Would it change your answer if it was a one-time fee vs. a recurring subscription fee?
  3. Do you think that website would exist at all in a universe where paying for content was the norm?
  4. If that website has a Donate button, or it sells T-shirts, or in some other way accepting voluntary payment, have you ever given them money? Why or why not?
  5. Is there anything not on the web, that you might pay for if it was? In a paywall world, do you think somebody might be putting that content on the web?

Discuss!