Scott Adams (yes – the same guy who does the Dilbert comic strips) wrote a blog post yesterday titled The Adams Theory of Content Value. He asserts that: “as our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.” Which is a fancy way of saying things will become free because people will be better able to find good alternatives to the current non-free stuff. To wit:
At the moment, plenty of people still pay for media content. Those reasons will evaporate. Let’s consider books. Most people still prefer old-timey tree-based books, but the Kindle and other ebook readers are eating into that preference quickly. I haven’t yet heard of anyone buying a Kindle and later returning to a preference for regular paper books. It appears to be a one way ride. The Kindle, and similar devices, are designed for buying legal copies of books, which is a doomed attempt to forestall the inevitability of all media content becoming free.
I’m not sure why this notion makes me so uncomfortable. It could be because I’m supportive of writers making money off of their content, or it could be because I’m also building something that may go that way.
My immediate, almost visceral reaction to this is to argue that there is value in commercially-created content. I think of software when I make this argument: free, open-source software has existed for years, and yet consumers have historically opted to buy closed-source products over free, open source ones (e.g: the iPad, and the variant of OSX that runs on it).
But that doesn’t make sense. Software isn’t exactly the kind of content we’re talking about – people don’t need a book or a game or a song the same way they need Microsoft Office. And I suspect open-source software isn’t as widely adopted simply because its creators (i.e.: bored geeks) don’t spend enough time optimizing for non-geek users. So this is one argument that’s fairly easy to discredit.
But then where does this leave us? It leaves me with my original discomfort, certainly. It is true lately that content is a bad business to be in, and whatever business models there are that are working are vastly different from merely ‘selling’ content. iTunes works, but then they’re not really a store – some have described it as a tollbooth; a gateway that charges you at a rate below your threshold of attention. And even if that were not true, iTunes still sells its albums at a price-point lower than albums were sold pre-Internet. If we extrapolate this, we’d probably have to accept Adams’s theory as the logical end-point for the value of content.
I’m still not sure if he’s right, because the argument sounds a little odd to me. And I can’t figure that out. It’s simple, but is it too simplistic? I’d like your help here. What do you think?
PS: Sorry for the lack of updates. I’ve been spending the last three weeks programming (and all the learning that goes with that) for Pandamian. This post is my way of easing out of code and into the text editor – updates are forthcoming, I assure you.