A decade ago, an internet video start-up called Hulu boldly declared an end to the era of paid TV. The company announced that users would be able to watch their favorite shows over the internet, “anytime, anywhere, for free.”
Understandably, Hollywood types were taken aback. But in the ’00s, free online TV, like free online everything else, seemed inevitable. Free was the internet’s natural price, and anyone foolish enough to think they could still charge their customers was on the slow march toward extinction. Large newspapers were either pulling down their pay walls or not erecting them at all, giving in to the tech pioneer Stewart Brand’s maxim that “information wants to be free.” Radiohead released a pay-what-you-want studio album, delighting the band’s fans and raising eyebrows among music-industry executives. “Practically everything web technology touches starts down the path to gratis,” declared Wired magazine, which called free services “the future of business” in a 2008 cover story.
The image of the internet as an egalitarian free-for-all — a place where no amount of money could buy you a superior experience, and where no lack of money could condemn you to an inferior one — persisted for years. Unlike the rest of consumer culture, the internet seemed immune to class division. Bill Gates used the same apps, visited the same websites and logged into the same social networks as the guy who mowed Bill Gates’s lawn — at least in theory, anyway.
This article is part of a special issue of The New York Times Magazine about the future of the internet.
And now? Well, check your credit-card statement. Today’s internet is full of premium subscriptions, walled gardens and virtual V.I.P. rooms, all of which promise a cleaner, more pleasant experience than their free counterparts. The pay walls have been rebuilt, and the artists no longer work for tips. Hundreds of millions of people shell out for Netflix accounts, Patreon podcasts, Twitch streams, Spotify and news subscriptions. The average American spent more than $1,300 on digital media last year. Even Hulu pulled the plug on its free tier in 2016, giving users the choice of paying $7.99 a month or watching “Ugly Betty” elsewhere.