There is a new trend among websites where they want my email address before I’m allowed to read their free content. While I sympathize with the struggles of the media business, I am just going to point out something obvious: not reading is easier than reading — and way easier than logging in.
I don’t mind that The Atlantic requires an email — it has kept me from hate-reading the astounding churn of bad takes they publish — but just about everyone else has got to knock this off. You hear me, Reuters? I am annoyed with Reuters, specifically, because it’s a wire service, and I can usually find its articles without logging in by avoiding the Reuters website. As for you, The New York Times, I do not want to read your stories in your app! No thanks!
Let’s keep naming names. Hey, Google? I don’t want to log in to do a search. If I wanted to log in, I would. All the pop-ups in the world are not going to get me to log in. You know how, on my phone, you keep asking me when I open a link in my email whether I want to open it in Chrome? I don’t, and I can say no forever. All you’re doing is making me resent you.
The more each site tries to create its own little walled garden, the less valuable the open web becomes
And confidential to Substack: if I have clicked into a newsletter on the web, blocking my view of the thing I’m trying to read with a subscription pop-up isn’t going to make me more likely to subscribe. It just means I’m probably not going to read the newsletter.
One of the major problems with salesbros is that they think “always be closing” is a mantra to live by because they didn’t understand the point of Glengarry Glen Ross, which is that salespeople are nightmares. That’s why there’s always some silly pop-up chat at the bottom of every website now. No, Pamela — if that is your real name — I don’t want live assistance booking my yoga class. You are hogging valuable screen real estate.
This is some real tragedy of the commons shit. The web is becoming a miserable experience because some salesbro who is trying to meet his KPIs is doing stuff to marginally increase the number of paying customers. (And you know, the hell with the rest of us!) The more each site tries to create its own little walled garden, the less valuable the open web becomes.
I suspect this has gotten more common lately because of privacy concerns. See, a change to EU privacy laws means it’s not as easy to track users around the web; Apple’s privacy initiatives on its phone similarly make this harder. In the case of publishers, I assume the company is trying to create a richer ad profile for me to better compete with Facebook and Google. Plus, you know, maybe they can sell my email as part of a targeted marketing list. So what we’re looking at here is creating a worse user experience in order to pursue a variety of scummy money-making schemes.
There are no real public spaces on the internet
And that sucks because there are no real public spaces on the internet. Here in reality, I can fuck off to a park and hug a tree and sit on a bench and do stuff without ads, without anyone trying to track me, and without having to pay a dime. There was a time within my memory when people tried to make websites feel like semipublic places — you could hang out on someone’s cool blog and enjoy yourself. Sure, there might be a banner ad, but that’s like paying a buck for coffee and then just sitting in a diner all day with free refills.
The semipermeable paywall? I understand that. Shit, if I’m reading more than 10 of your articles a month, I probably should subscribe. Fair’s fair, and writers have to eat just like everyone else. But I’m starting to feel like I’m being strip-mined for data, and for what? Google already has access to my email. Why on earth does it need more of my information? How much more of my life does this behemoth want to surveil?
I don’t know, man. I was on the internet in the 1990s, and I remember when people just made stuff for fun — as a gift to other people. It seems like there’s less and less of that spirit remaining, and it’s why the internet sucks now. It’s why I have to append “reddit” to my Google searches to avoid getting SEO glurge — the for-profit stuff drowns out everything else. It’s why people are using DALL-E for newsletter header images to make sure their newsletter gets a bigger card in a social media feed — because it doesn’t matter what the image looks like as long as it exists. It’s why people intentionally put errors in their TikToks to juice engagement — because all the people commenting to tell you you’re wrong boost you in the algorithm. This is the bad place!
I’d like to believe we’re better than this, that it’s still possible to make weird, beautiful stuff online and find an audience without doing the scummy marketing grotesquerie. But realistically, it’s a matter of time before I beat someone to death with a copy of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift because they’ve let slip in casual conversation that they made all their money by making the web worse. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some grass to go touch.