Paywalls, Sharewalls, and Credit Layers on Content Sites

Late last night in a fight against insomnia, I tweeted out something that admittedly had very little thought behind it: “Instead of a paywall, why not put some content behind a wall that is only unlocked when the reader/viewer tweets out on behalf of the site?” I woke this morning to find that it was circulated quite widely, especially by some people who manage high-traffic content sites and mobile apps. Quora co-founder (and) former Facebook Platform Lead Charlie Cheever said this was actually an old Facebook app trick, and James Rapaport from Livestream said they are using a lot of “Like to Watch” plays and that brands are responding positively to it. Generally, the view was positive in nature — instead of a paywall protecting content from, say, The New York Times, why not impose alongside it a “Sharewall” whereby users can unlock content in exchange for publicly sharing that content through social network platforms, mainly Twitter? (And, NYT can’t figure its own pricing out.)

The idea of a “sharewall” may be better in theory than in practice, though:

  • What if I had to unlock an article by tweeting, but after reading it, didn’t think it was worth sharing? Or, worse, what if it was a really bad article (and my tweet served as an endorsement) or contained unsavory/unsuitable content?
  • What if I didn’t like to share what I was reading either for privacy concerns or out of a desire to protect any competitive intelligence?
  • What if those that follow my feed get annoyed by all the reading (and sharing) I’m doing?
  • And, of course, what if I’m not on Twitter (asymmetric) but only Facebook (closed loop)?

Perhaps the compromise is to have a sharewall alongside a paywall, whereby a site creates a marketplace for its content. Some users can pay to unlock it, and some can share to unlock it. This market could have its own “credit layer” built on top of it (what pundits refer to as “gamification,” which is a terrible word, I know). Say for The Economist, for instance, I could pay cash to get content, or pay through clicks via Twitter, along the way building up credits so that The Economist knows if I am simply digesting lots of their articles or, better yet for them, sharing them with my network.