Robert D Feinman

Free Information

One of the most unexpected side effects of the internet has been the explosion of sites offering free information on almost any topic imaginable. These sites mostly fall into two categories. Those that offer some information as an inducement to purchase products or services from them and those that just feel that what they know should be more widely available.

Many of these latter sites are run by hobbyists or enthusiasts with no expectation towards making money. In fact for many they are spending their own funds to pay for the computers and host sites which support their efforts.

Recently there have been some efforts to create a system of micro-payments that can function efficiently in an online environment. The principal features for this type of service are that it must be easy to use, must be secure, must allow complete strangers to engage in financial transactions and must keep the overhead low enough so that the bulk of the funds reach the recipient.

The first of the more successful service has been Paypal and this has recently been joined by an attempt from Amazon.com, among others. These efforts miss the criterion for ease of use since both require establishing a financial arrangement with the service, but satisfy most of the other criteria reasonably well.

This brings up the question of whether, assuming micro-payments work, we should now be willing to pay for "free" information. In many cases the information provided solves a problem for the reader which may affect a purchase or use of a service that will require an expenditure of some sort. So the advice has a monetary value for them.

For example, an equipment review may save at trip to a local store, thus saving the time and transportation costs involved. Or the same information may replace the need to purchase a magazine to get similar information. So if someone is willing to spend four or five dollars for a printed review or tip should they be willing to spend something for an online one? Or a tip on a technique or process may prevent the reader from making mistakes and wasting materials.

Personally, I've never considered this question before since the only available payment mechanisms were of the subscription type such as those from commercial sites like newspapers and financial advice publications. In this case you are paying in advance on the chance that you may find something of interest eventually. With micro-payments, especially voluntary ones, you get to try before you buy.

So, as an experiment, I've recently added a link to Amazon.com's new "Honor" payment system to see what happens. As part of this experiment I'd like to hear from viewers as to their opinions on paying for "free" information.


The experiment was run for a number of months with the result that not one person was willing to pay for something that could be obtained for free. This might indicate that the thought the material was worthless, but feedback from viewers has generally been positive as these comments show. I can only conclude that the world is not attuned to a "pay it forward" type of information flow. The rise of blogosphere and its success in mobilizing people for political activity (and contributions) may indicate that attitudes are changing at least when important issues are concerned.

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© 2004/2006 Robert D Feinman