Your (Lossy) Walled Garden

4 minute read

Everybody’s Trying to Build Walled Gardens

Increasingly I’m running across the following situation: I see a teaser-with-a-link somewhere on the ’net (likely Twitter or HN) that piques my interest. Perhaps its relevant to something I’m thinking about or working on. I click the link.

I find myself on some website or other — Squatify, Shrugstack, BlinkedIn, whatever — and they won’t allow me to read/listen/watch the stuff I came to look at without signing in. For me this usually means signing up first. (Login identities are the Kleenex of cyberspace.)

And that means the whole tedious password/reCaptcha/email confirmation/re-log-in rigmarole. Even worse is when they ask for my date-of-birth along the way. What the fuck do they need my DoB for when it’s to listen to some podcast that I may or may not last 20 seconds into? I always lie about it anyway: To keep myself slightly amused I usually probe for the earliest year the site validation will accept. The 1800’s seem out of bounds mostly, though there is one site that thinks I’m over 350 years old. Then there’s the reCaptcha. Google and most of it’s tentacles are blocked in my default browser (Firefox with a comprehensive stack of privacy-enhancing/ad-blocking plugins) so actually registering through some reCaptcha’d site is a pain in the arse that involves using another browser. (I routinely use about 5 different browsers for different purposes. It’s occasionally a little inconvenient, but for the peace of mind, worth it.) I hate being a training-monkey for the Google image-recognition machine. More and more I flat refuse and just go away when I’m confronted with “Confirm you’re not a robot”.

The whole premise is stupid. Do you think that a casual, drive-by reader — a “consumer” of one article ever — is going to become permanent fodder for your VC-driven monetisation strategy just because you put a wall around it and tried to force me through your sausage machine? As Noah said to the Unicorn: “I have some bad news for you.”

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Dumb

And this brings me — quite neatly and logically — to the problem of piracy.

Not the Pirates Off The Starboard Bow kind. The “I copied your movie” kind.

Content alert: Detour ahead.

When I was a young lad — around those spotty, early teen years — the tech of the day was cassette tapes. Me and my pals (dudes/bros not having been invented yet) would share (“pirate”) music by dangling a microphone in front of the speakers to record some new album or song. The quality was, needless to say, dismal! But we got to listen to a whole lot more edgy/interesting music than the bland playlisted crap that came over the radio.

The interesting thing is that, when we all grew a bit older and began to earn some money, among the first things we’d buy were original copies (vinyl in those days) of those selfsame albums. i.e. The bands we’d listened to and grown to love. I can attest to having bought quite a number of albums several times over (as we moved from vinyl to CD to MP3/Flac).

Now think: Would I have bought no less than 5 copies of Wakeman’s Six Wives Of Henry VIII, or 3 copies of Aqualung if I’d never heard those artists’ music before? Would I have bought the entire Discworld series of books if I had not first read a couple of them from the Library?

Not a fucking chance.

People want to try before they’ll buy.

So what makes these stupid websites think it’s likely to work any better for them?

Answer: It will not.

(I’m looking at you, NYT, WaPo, BusinessInsider!)

Perhaps if you allow a taster or two I might become a willing, nay enthusiastic buyer. But if I can’t sample just a little bit first, there’s pretty-well zero likelihood of me being willing to part with even quite small amounts of money for something completely unknown and untested.

Stick to the Point, Bro!

There’s more (quite a lot more) to be said around this, but it would be too gross a digression from my main point today, which is this:

No, I will NOT enter your walled garden if you won’t let me sample the goods first.

No, I will NOT identify more traffic lights, bridges, buses or pissing dogs if that’s the best way you can come up with to detect bots.


If you’re hiding all your work behind one of these paywalls (and yes, jumping through signup/login/fire-hydrant hoops IS a form of payment!) you may be losing (permanently!) quite a lot of your potential audience. Think about putting at least some of your work in a more accessible place. (Look at Cory Doctorow’s example.)