Dark Clouds on Black Friday for Consumer-Created Content

Consumer sentiment in the U.S. is falling. People are planning to spend less for the holidays this year, pointing to higher energy prices and a bleak economic outlook. What if cranky consumers stop creating content for free even as they open up their wallets for Black Friday specials?

[qi:101]This version of the web is a follow-on to the first web boom, right down to the money on which it’s based. A bunch of the hottest startups of this generation were launched by people who made bags of cash in the late nineties (for example, Marc Andreessen, Joe Kraus, Sabeer Bhatia). A bunch of the financiers of today were entrepreneurs of yesterday (Peter Thiel, Flip Filipowski). And some of the talkiest talkers of Web 2.0 do so from a platform of wealth built a decade earlier (Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin).

But those are only the most obvious cases of how this era of affluence builds on the last. The untold story is how real people — what businesses think of as consumers and most of us think of as ourselves, our friends, and our family — have been willing and wealthy enough to spend time producing online goodies with little or no pay.

If consumer wealth crashes — and both Business Week and The Economist offer cover stories this week saying it will — what happens to the content powering Web 2.0? Will people still have time to blog if they need to take a second job (or a first one) to keep making payments on their rapidly adjusting ARM? Will people still videocast their lives if those lives require full-time drudge work to keep the bank account balance positive? Will people still create new web sites like it’s 1999 when the stock market and their paychecks say it’s anything but?

Plenty of people still have plenty of money to do work for free or almost free, and it would be impossible to shut down the human drive to express one’s self and connect with other people doing the same. But if consumer affluence crashes, it may not be long before Internet idealists turn into Internet realists and start saying pay me for my content or else I can’t afford to create it.

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