Paywall vs. Solving the Satisfaction Paradox

satisfaction guaranteed

In his continuously insightful fashion, Kevin Kelly describes the “satisfaction paradox” and the value of recommendations in the context of endless (and often free) choices: “The paradox of satisfaction suggests that the tools we employ to increase our satisfaction of choices — filters and recommendations — may be unsatisfying if they diminish the power of our choices. Another way to say this: no system can be absolutely satisfying.”

About the future, Kevin says:

“You’ll pay the subscription fee in order to get access to their recommendations to the “free” works, which are also available elsewhere. Their recommendations (assuming continual improvements by more collaboration and sharing of highlights, etc.) will be worth more than the individual books. You won’t buy movies; you’ll buy cheap access and pay for personalized recommendations.”

This may sound like the types of recommendations Amazon and Netflix already provide, however, he’s specifically talking about paying for recommendations of things that are free.

In February, I wrote about a NYTimes.com service I would be happy to pay for, even if there were no paywall. It’s a preview of the type of service Kevin is forecasting — services that address “the satisfaction paradox” (not to be confused with its cousin, the “paradox of choice.” — the theory that we find too many choices paralyzing, and give up.)

If you are a registered user of NYTimes.com, based on the articles you read, share, recommend, etc., the following service starts recommending NYT articles you haven’t read: http://www.nytimes.com/recommendations [warning: may be metered]. (An insightful article about the NYT recomendation service can be found at Neimanlab.com.)

“Recommendations,” like “curation” may end up being a gigantic buzzword hole in the coming months (tied especially to the coming launch of News.me that started out also in the NYT R&D Lab.). [See below: “Nerdish note”] However, I believe if the NYTimes offered to do something equivalent to what Last.fm calls scrobbling (they use it to describe the process that enables my willingness to allow Last.fm to analyze my music collection and everything I listen to, in order to help me find new music), they could build an incredibly valuable paid service.

Let’s say I allowed the New York Times to “news-scrobble” all my “expressions” of news-interests through my re-tweeting, linking, saving to Instapaper and Times People recommendations, sharing on Google Reader. Before long, they could provide me an incredibly intuitive set of links to news — not only on NYTimes.com, but that is found anywhere across the web.

For productivity, efficiency and pure fun, I’d gladly pay the NYTimes for all the time it would save me and the knowledge it would provide me.

Bottomline: You wouldn’t quibble over paying a guide to help you hike through an unfamiliar jungle, even though the jungle is free.

(Nerdish note: There are plenty of services that claim to do this (and have, since the beginning of time) — but I’m talking here about something far more complex than topical recommendations, or collections of links based solely on social factors like, my “friends shared on Twitter and Facebook.” In other words, this is far-beyond “social-news” or anything I and others have been obsessed with over the past decade regarding personalization. And, frankly, far beyond what I’ve read about News.me. Been there (conceptually, at least), big time. This mashes up all of those things learned (and disproved) during the past 15 years regarding collaborative filtering, social search and customization — and a business model that delivers easily defined and measured value. Until that time comes, my RSS news reader is constantly fine-tuned to provide me my own, hand-crafted, recommendation engine.)