From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 23, 1997*Make Money Slow

Is the internet a good place to make money? Disregarding for a moment the notion that the internet is a "place", anyone who follows the literature is forced to admit that millions of dollars have so far been invested in trying to prove that it is, though as yet unsuccessfully. Companies with vast reserves can permit themselves the luxury of seeing how much money they can throw away until just maybe they start making some.

The best bet for the rest of us is to read all the pyramid schemes of the make money fast kind, and then simply hold on to what we've got. If we're not going to make money, at least we dont have to lose it, or throw it away.

I was under the apparently false impression that this was pretty much common knowledge. And then I was approached by an otherwise conservative (and elderly) member of my kibbutz with a question he hoped I could answer for him.

The person in question edits a newsletter of English translations from the Israeli press. Twice a month he chooses five articles of political interest, translates them and types the translations up on his word processor. After he prints out the new edition another elderly member of the kibbutz mimeographs copies of the newsletter that get sent to about twenty subscribers. The subscription fee is enough to cover the postage and paper expenses. It is not a money making venture. It is, however, a very useful service, and the subscribers are pleased with it. But maintaining a useful service is apparently not enough.

The editor has an e-mail account, though he uses it very rarely. Occasionally he sends a solicited translation to a politcal organization which gets placed on the organization's web site. He sends the translation as an attached document via e-mail, though just how he manages this is beyond me since I've been enlisted by him numerous times to help out a bit, and/or explain what he's doing wrong, and though sending an attached document is a very simple procedure, it's hard for me to picture him doing it successfully on his own.

But this time he didn't enlist my aid for technical assistance, but rather to seek out my opinion. He had been in contact with his ISP who had quoted him a price for a web site. He wanted to post his translations on a web site, and wanted to know whether to my mind the price stated by his ISP was logical. I, however, had difficulty understanding the price estimate since, in addition to the cost of preparing and maintaining the site, it included a cover charge for each subscriber up until fifty subscriptions. After trying to make sense of this, and not exactly succeeding, I was informed that his intention was to charge people for access to the site. Apparently subscribers would receive a password which would permit them to access the site. Relatively simple arithmetic was sufficient to figure out that if the twenty subscribers moved to the online edition, saving postage and printing costs, the money saved would be about equal to the price of maintaining the site. Twenty subscriptions wouldn't be enough to make this a money making venture - fifty might turn a small profit.

But I wasn't confused by the relatively simple arithmetic. What confused me was the thought that this person viewed the internet as fertile ground for a money making venture. Granted, he wasn't much of a web surfer (frankly, I don't know what he did/does with this account), and thus hadn't had much of an opportunity to see what happens on the web, but if that was the case, why would he focus on the profit aspect of the web rather than on the aspect of dissemination of information? Here was a person who was offering information as a service, and since in its snail mail version his newsletter was a labor of love that didn't turn a profit, my assumption was that he would have wanted to use the internet to make his information more readily available, oblivious to the profit aspect.

But I was wrong. He seemed to sincerely think that he could make a profit. He even told me that he was considering making one of the five translations from each edition available for free in order to attract readers who would then subscribe in order to get the entire newsletter. The well known adage so often quoted when referring to the internet: "information wants to be free" simply wasn't part of his developing internet ethos, though his was a classic case of where it should. I read numerous magazine and newspaper articles on the internet that are made available to me by various individuals and organizations, including publishers. I have no doubt that all of them want to make a profit. But they apparently also realize that the medium of the internet works by different rules than those of the traditional information media - more along the lines of libraries where information is made available to us as a service. (To tell the truth, I don't know how public libraries operate. They certainly don't turn a profit, and are dependent on taxes for their budgets.)

One magazine I read, both in the print and the bit versions, is Wired. The bit version, free of charge, is filled with much more information than the costly print version, and also offers extensive hyperlinking and the opportunity to communicate with other readers. The print version is a work of art that can be left out on a coffee table, and I certainly won't belittle the importance of that. One section of the bit version is called Brain Tennis where every two weekd a debate on a chosen topic is conducted between two opposing experts, each day a new response being added. In march of this year the debate was on "Push Media". The debate was titled A Dream Deferred. Julie Petersen, a veteran web site producer argued for the traditional, "many-to-many" model of the web:

The person who approached me offers a valuable service. It may not be something that has a mass appeal, but it doesn't need to be. In its print version it's not a particularly costly endeavor, but it certainly isn't profitable. It probably also goes the way of all paper. Perhaps each edition passes from subscriber to friend to friend before it's either thrown out or filed away, but even if the circulation is slightly larger than the subscription list, it's not very large. An internet-based free version would cost less to produce. At first it might not have much circulation, but changes are good that a good deal more than twenty people are interested in a service such as this, and that slowly but surely the readership would grow. My friend still wouldn't be getting rich, but he would be offering his small part to that previously unattainable omniscience, and that in itself would be a very satisfying achievement.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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