Are Paywalls Worth It? - Here's What You Need to Knowby@evansoohoo
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Are Paywalls Worth It? - Here's What You Need to Know

by Evan SooHoo6mJanuary 26th, 2022
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Elliot Alderson wrote a viral post on once...exactly once, and never to be repeated again. This post received 200,000 views, whereas the second most popular post on that blog received 500 (total, not thousand) The content of this post was not really that important - I will not link it here because I have two accounts and try to keep my pen name separate. By not putting down a paywall, I effectively gave up $4527.24, so...there you go.

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I wrote a viral post on once...exactly once, and never to be repeated again. This post received 200,000 views, whereas the second most popular post on that blog received 500 (total, not thousand). The content of this post was not really that important - I will not link it here because I have two accounts and try to keep my pen name separate, even though you would not have to be real-life Elliot Alderson to figure out what my alias was.

"Why should I care?" you ask. The honest answer is that you probably shouldn't, but I think that this sliver of experience provides an interesting window into the trade-offs of blogging with/without a paywall. If the editors do not exile this story to the barren hellscape of Medium and you are reading this on HackerNoon, then I think you already have a good idea what some people think of paywalls.

What I wrote was a short overview post about the software engineer job search process, but in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. For example, I wrote about a time in college when I missed a phone interview because I had to unclog a toilet (this would have been an excellent response to the "is now a good time?" question recruiters love to ask). It spawned hundreds, if not thousands of comments by people debating the pros and cons of coding interviews in general, often moving past the article content entirely to have a broader conversation about things like whiteboarding, online coding tests, and hiring procedures.

One of my friends theorized that it became popular because it split the tech community into two halves: A half that said, "Yes, I agree, the software engineer interview process is too difficult and unfair," and a half that said, "No it's not, IDIOT." The two halves then waged war across HackerNews and Reddit until the Medium algorithm went back to promoting self-help articles.

When it reached 200,000 views and 1145 hours of Medium member reader time, I asked the question I am sure is on everyone's mind:

Wait a minute...f***. How much money could I have made if I put a paywall on this?

How Much Money Do Paywalls Make? (Answer: It Depends...)

The nature of innovation in software history is, of course, driven by money and nothing else. Can you imagine how different the world would be, had it not been for Linus Torvalds' decision to make Linux closed source, or Tim Berners Lee's decision to patent the Internet so that it would be restricted to the world's wealthiest 1%? Just thinking about it makes me shiver.

I found this article by someone on Medium named Jenn Leach called "This is how much medium paid me for 200,000 views." The answer is $4527.24, so...there you go. By not putting down a paywall, I effectively gave up $4527.24.

This logic is, of course, way too simplistic to be accurate. A simpler and less stressful answer to my question is that the viral post would have made me exactly $0, since I had 0 followers when I wrote it and you need 100 followers to be a Medium Partner. But I continued to write on this blog, and if I remember correctly it gained 100 followers almost overnight. It received 150,000 views in the weeks it was popular, but got the next 50,000 gradually over the next few months. So could this have made me $1131, which is a quarter of that?

Again, the answer is not so simple. According to Leach, Medium uses a fairly complex formula (that is a link to their own description, and it is pretty vague) that takes member reading time into account. Even with that in mind, the next obvious difference is that a paywall may have prevented whatever insane mix of factors caused this blog post to get popular in the first place. Someone shared the blog post on Reddit, and everything snowballed from there.

But if I consistently wrote viral articles on Medium like Jenn Leach and if I had 7100 followers (that account has 500) and if this article came out after that, then I may have earned more than $1000. Maybe.

Jenn Leach is very successful, and I absolutely want to give her credit for her accomplishments and for giving me a source to work with. Her blog post that received 200,000 views was called, "This is How Much Medium Paid Me for 100,000 views."

Heroes of Tech

One difficult thing about describing is that their rules keep changing. I was happy to read this HackerNoon article about the paywall paradox, since it gave me one very useful nugget of information: If you contribute to a Medium publication, then you can read everything in that publication for free.

I believe InterviewNoodle is still a Medium resource that provides interview preparation content for free - I have written for them before, but I seem to be able to view their content in a private browser, without a limit. Another place many of us frequent, particularly when on the job hunt, is BaseCS.

Vaidehi Joshi is one of the gems of the tech industry. She created one of the, if not the best educational computer science resource, like Grokking Algorithms if Bhargava had chosen to create a series of free blog posts instead of selling a book. If I met her in person, I would love to tell her about how many people she has helped.

At the same time, I am not sure if I would blurt out a dumb question: Do you know how much money you could have made? Her posts have thousands of claps, and since mine has 6000 this likely means she has received millions of reads in total (she has a lot of articles). Considering her consistency and popularity, this would mean she was willing to leave thousands of dollars on the table so that millions of people could learn.

And what if David Gilbertson had published this on a paywall-blocked Medium page, instead of on HackerNoon? He may have been thousands of dollars richer, and several million people in tech would never have learned about a serious software vulnerability.

Why People Use Paywalls (tl;dr money)

I have continued to blog on, and I have never used a paywall. It is my hope that anyone reading this thinks this is because of my integrity, and not because I vehemently refused to pay $5 a month until I figured out how much money I could have made.

For all I know, Medium success requires consistency, and not whatever strike-of-lightning luck I found. After reading through all the responses to my article, I stumbled on a particularly mean one. One sentence I wrote was that, "You can be a backend engineer who works very closely with hardware." This sentence was incorrect, but whoever wrote this comment acted like I was not qualified to write, knew nothing about technology, and personally threatened to kill both of their children. They even got in a heated argument with someone else in the comments who they thought was me. Their hatred for my article was so great that they told off HIM for NOT writing it.

Reasons a paywall may have been nice:

  • I received very mean comments. At no point did I read a comment that said, "Well, good sir, though I believe your use of the term 'backend' was incorrect, I give you credit for making this article paywall-free. Good day to you." Had I deleted the comment option, all the fascinating debates about job interviews would disappear
  • Someone on Medium plagiarized the article, which is a fairly common occurrence. If I had used a paywall, I may have been able to hire a lawyer for 30 seconds to copy and paste a cease-and-desist
  • I could have used the money on something really exciting, like a gaming laptop. Or a tooth crown

Medium articles about writing Medium articles are very popular. I think that producing this kind of content is a little dangerous, in the sense that you may find yourself writing dozens of things about writing until you wake up and forget why you enjoyed writing to begin with.

GPT-3 is eventually going to dominate all blogging with viral content like this (yes, an AI wrote that viral self-help post). Maybe we should just enjoy this while we can.

Closing Thoughts

Though I still do not use paywalls, I no longer think the topic is so black-and-white. You can make money, and then you can make money writing about how you made money.

You can then pivot into other social media platforms, all of which pertain to money. Your various accounts can reflect each other until you unlock the infinite monetization loop.

Graham Stephan will personally give you a high five, your mattress will be stuffed with $100 bills, and Meta will offer you a job because of how much meta content you produced.

I will be here all week.