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The idea behind Freecycle is sound. It is an online forum where you give away unwanted items and not dump them in a landfill site. There are local Freecycles around the world. I tried the one in Auckland, New Zealand.

In my case, I listed items I no longer need. People who want the items email their interest, arrange a meet up and deal with the item. There’s an alternative approach where people who need things can ask for them.

It sounds simple enough and I’ve used it to unclutter my garage before a house move, but I’ve run into problems with Freecycle, which make me question its value.

Freecycle problems

Problem 1: Can’t be bothered. I’ve offered a number of items on Freecycle, had them requested and the person at the other end of the deal fails to pick up the item. I guess because an item is free, it has little perceived value by the recipient. Maybe there are other reasons. Either way, my first three forays into Freecycle resulted in receivers not picking up the items they requested.

Problem 2: Slackness. This is closely related to problem 1. Receivers make appointments to pick up items, I wait at home for them, they don’t turn up. Then they make more broken appointments etc. While  rescheduling is fine, we’re talking about people who constantly shuffle appointments.

Problem 3: Greed. I’ve noticed some of the receivers turning up to pick up items ask for more. In one case the picker-up wandered into my open garage asking if he could take items than were clearly not for recycling. This makes me uneasy with the process. I also don’t like it when I offer item X, and get tons of emails asking if I’ll also be giving away a loosely related item Y.

Problem 4: Inefficiency. When someone requests an item, I post a taken message on Freecycle. The matter should end there, but emails pour in for days and weeks after, asking if the item is still available. Not taking notice of “Taken” posts is just plain rude.

Problem 5: Venality. Some of the stuff I’ve distributed via Freecycle has turned up for sale on TradeMe (if you’re outside New Zealand this is the local equivalent of eBay). On one level I don’t care when happens to the items I’ve given away. Once they’ve gone, they’ve gone. On the other hand, I suspect some Freecycle users are professional scavengers – which disturbs me. Apart from anything else this undermines the idealism of the project.

Have you run into problems with Freecycle? Or are you happy with it? I’d love to hear your opinion.

Whatever happened to: the Internet-connected fridge? at PC Authority brought back memories of internet fridge stories I wrote in 2000.

It was just after the dotcom bubble burst, but at a time when there was still interest in the internet and the way it was reaching in to all aspects of life. Despite huge investments and plenty of hype, internet-connected fridges never took off.

They hardly sold. Before we look at why the product category failed, here’s the colourful intro I wrote for a The Australian Financial Review story in June 2000:

Disney’s cartoon movie The Beauty and the Beast featured a castle full of intelligent animated appliances that talked to each other. The film was made as recently as 1991, yet even at that time, the idea of loquacious brooms, smart candlesticks, chatty clocks and even intelligent teapots seemed like pure fantasy.

It was eerily prophetic. Today people in laboratories, software development corporations and marketing departments are working on projects that will put an electronic brain in just about every household appliance you can imagine and provide the hardware allowing devices to talk to each other. By the time Disney’s film celebrates its tenth birthday, the first fruit of their labours will be on sale.

Hopefully the modern smart household devices won’t spend their time in petty cartoonish bickering. For the most part they’ll be swapping information and communication commands from one device to another to co-ordinate their actions. Most likely the signals shuttling between a real world clock and a smart electric kettle will travel by wireless. Though other technologies such as infrared are also under investigation.

The failure was obvious even as the appliance companies were still steaming ahead with the products. I interviewed someone selling a fridge that could detect when it was running out of milk and automatically order another litre via an online supermarket.

None of this was cheap. The fridge cost more than A$20,000.

To order a single litre of milk – which might cost a dollar in a supermarket – would cost $35 by the time the online grocer added fees and delivery charges. Colour me Luddite if you like, but I suspect few people would fork out that kind of money when they could just stop off on the way home and pick up a carton.

In a story titled Hell’s Kitchen, I wrote:

In January, visitors to the International Building Show in Dallas Texas got a glimpse of the kitchen of the future. General Electric showed an Internet-connected fridge that reads food packet bar codes and automatically re-orders items when stocks run low.

Rival fridge-maker Whirlpool’s device had a detachable wireless pad that could download recipes.

At roughly the same time, Sunbeam was showing an alarm clock that turns off an electric blanket while switching on the coffee machine. It also has bathroom scales that send your weight details to the gym.

Elsewhere companies have been promoting net-enabled microwave ovens that allow busy office workers to send cooking commands via the web and have dinner cooked by the time they return home.

All heady stuff. But mainly nonsense as I went on to point out. My main story didn’t use this language, it said appliance makers who were suffering from low margins on dull products looked at high-tech companies and their profits and decided to get in on the act. The internet fridge was meant to be a money spinner. It wasn’t.

…companies in the low-margin, mature, distinctly unsexy appliance business regard the Internet as a kind of commercial Viagra that will rejuvenate their profit margins and enable them to satisfy every woman’s needs for ages to come.

Maybe. But there are major obstacles to overcome, not least of which is consumer apathy. To date sales of high-tech kitchen devices have not exactly set the market alight.

The kind of gung-ho marketing commandos who flog these products aren’t the sort to let customer indifference stop them, but there are other problems.

Above all there’s a lack of standards. Kitchen appliance makers and computer companies have formed into a number of camps around various communications protocols and, guess what? Devices made by rival companies can’t talk to each other.

In other words, it was obvious the internet fridge was never going to fly.

Short, snappy writing works best online.

First, people are less ready to read long pieces online than short articles.

Second, people read online material about 25 percent slower than print. Jakob Nielsen explains why in In defence of print. Nielsen wrote his article in 1996, but things haven’t changed.

Third,  people get distracted easily online. There are advertisements and links to other websites as well as bleeping notification of incoming emails, tweets and instant messages.

If you write a brief article, there is more chance a reader will get to the end before skipping off elsewhere.

Fourth, skilled writers aim for brevity because good, vigorous English is concise.

A writer’s goal is to get messages to readers as swiftly and as accurately as possible.

Get on. Say what you need to say. Get off.

Leave the fancy, flowery stuff to poets and fiction writers.

People spend less time reading online news than reading printed newspapers because reading a screen is more mentally and physically taxing.

I’ve no hard and fast evidence to offer. This is just my observation. It would make a great research project for someone.

People certainly do read less online than in print. I discovered this today in a different context at Newspapers online – the real dilemma.

Here, Australian online media expert Ben Shepherd was examining why online newspapers earn proportionately less money than print newspapers. He says it comes down to engagement. A typical online consumer of Rupert Murdoch’s products spends just 12.6 minutes a month reading News Corporation web sites. In comparison the average newspaper reader spends 2.8 hours a week with their printed copy.

Print still better in some ways

There are other factors. But I’d argue, the technology behind online reading is part of the problem:

  • Newspapers and magazines are typically printed at about 600 dots per inch.
  • Computer screens typically display text and pictures at 72 pixels per inch. Some display at 96 dots per inch.
  • The contrast is usually far better on paper than on screen.
  • Screens often include distracting elements. This can be particularly bad where online news sites have video or audio advertising on the same page as news stories.

Lower resolution means it takes more effort for a human brain to convert text into meaningful information. Screens are fine for relatively small amounts of text, but over the long haul your eyes and your brain will get tired faster. You’ll find it harder to concentrate and your comprehension will suffer.

I’m a reader who can stay up all night with a decent novel, but I found it hard to stick with most eBook readers for more than ten minutes.

Also, sub-editors and proof readers generally find more errors on a printed page than on a screen.

What does this mean?

  • The online reading revolution is going ahead without anyone worrying about readability, but it’ll be better when improved screen technology arrives.
  • In the back of my mind I suspect this is one reason Twitter’s 140 word limit succeeds. Again, I’ll leave the research project to someone else.

There’s debate in publishing circles about whether consumers will pay for online content. Rupert Murdoch recently moved from the free content camp to thinking out loud about charging readers micropayments to view news.

Now Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal says it will press ahead with a micropayment scheme as well as more conventional subscriptions.

Reuters columnist Eric Auchard looks at possible newspaper business models for The Guardian in Pay a small toll to read this news story.  He concludes; “the newspaper industry must find a way to make work one or several of these proposals to make consumers pay for online news. The alternative is to accept that newspapers have had their day.”

Why micropayments?

In theory the subscription model should be perfect for delivering digital content. Yet only a handful of businesses have succeeded in persuading consumers to pay an upfront fee for pure online content – the best-known examples are the adult sites.

There have been famous failures to attract subscription revenue. Slate magazine started out free, then attempted to move to the subscription model. Less than 5% of readers were willing to pay even a modest fee to read the magazine. It has since returned to the ad-supported free online newspaper business model. This five percent figure crops up a lot in the context of online subscriptions, but few publishers have ever reached such giddy heights.

Buy print subscription, get digital free

There are interesting variations on the subscription theme, such as The Economist a British weekly newspaper-magazine has an excellent website. At first only subscribers to the print edition had full access to the entire site. Today, The Economist also offedigital-only only subscription, it’s about 20 percent of the price of a print subscription. The New Scientist has similar offers.

Another variation is where Internet users can trade their personal information for a subscription. The New York Times allows access to a basic set of pages, but for full access you have to fill out a questionnaire. Fairfax Media’s Stuff site in New Zealand allows registered users to customise pages and news feeds. Fairfax’s Australian sites let registered users take part in competitions and receive custom alerts. In some cases the data from these schemes is used for simple information gathering, in other cases once you’ve signed up you’ll see a never-ending stream of spam.

One reason why many content publishers haven’t yet managed to sell subscriptions is that online payment is still based on credit cards. Although many companies have attempted to introduce micropayment systems, none have taken off. Credit card transactions are simply not economically viable below, say, $10.

Rocky road to micropayments

Although as a journalist and ex-publisher I’d love to find ways of turning my skills into a reliable income once more, I see three big problems with getting readers to pay for online content.

First, for readers to pay money, content has to be valuable and consistently good. The Economist and the New Scientist offer consistently good reading and are reliable, credible information sources.

The same cannot be said for all newspapers. The most popular news stories online tend to be trashy tabloid pieces about celebrities – often hinting at sex or with vaguely sexy pictures. These drag in the punters for online advertising, but few people would pay money for this material.

Micropayments send price signals

Second, micropayment schemes would send price signals to journalists. While an economist would argue this is a good thing, it may kill the news business. Newspapers earn their credibility with their markets by the breadth, depth and independence of their coverage. If the easy micropayment dollars all accrue to the trash stories, then quality journalism will be quickly eliminated or relegated to backwaters.

Micropayments will give newspaper managers instant financial feedback on the profitability of stories, genres, beats and individual journalists. Journalist will quickly learn to write for salability. Tech Dirt has an interesting perspective on this in Wait… Wouldn’t Micropayments Be Bad For Journalism?

Third, readers may need to set up multiple accounts with multiple publishers. It may be helpful if there was an iTunes style clearing house for online news, but I can’t see a realistic way this could be made to work.

Lastly, the idea of charging readers to access news adds considerable friction to the process. Stories behind pay content walls become invisible to search engines. The mere process of a reader stopping and thinking ‘do I have enough credit?’ or ‘is this worth paying for?’ will erode numbers. Regardless of their willingness to pay, the frictionless, free content sites will win the traffic everyday.