Wednesday, February 02, 2005


There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who will blink at the title of this post and those who will smile fondly at the reference to Robert Heinlein's science fiction classic, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.* It was that book which gave us the acronym, "TANSTAAFL" (pronouce it the way it looks; it rhymes with "awful"), which stands for, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

If someone had not absconded with my favorite Heinlein novel, I could confirm this; but as I recall, "TANSTAAFL" is actually one of the chapter headings in the book.

But this post isn't about Heinlein. It's about free lunches.

Some of the articles I link to from this blog are on servers that require you to be a registered user in order to gain access. The New York Times is one of those pesky sites. Registration is free; you have only to fill out a form to gain full access to the site, but it's still annoying.

One of the most tedious and intrusive registration forms I've come across is at the Dallas Morning News. "No, thank you," I said recently, deciding I wasn't quite that desperate to read the article I had gone looking for. There are lots of other news sources on the internet, so I moved on.

Several months ago, someone pointed me to "Tell everyone you know," the home page urges. "Bypass compulsory web registration." At first glance, that seemed like a really cool idea. The internet has always been about the free exchange of information, so the sites that badger us to register are violating the spirit of the World Wide Web. Right?

Not exactly. The web has never been truly free. Since its beginning, advertisements have been used to finance the sites we visit. So the internet is "free" in the same way network television is free. Which is to say, it isn't. If you want to see the show, you must pay for it by sitting through a few commercials.

The web is still growing, and now in addition to bombarding us with banner ads, popups, and the like, more and more websites are beginning to require visitors to fill out registration forms.

Bugmenot shows you how to sneak in the back door of the "registration required" sites without going through all those tiresome forms. I checked it out. I tried it once, sneaking into a site using the password some kind soul had created as a public service to fellow Bugmenot users.

After that experience I could not bring myself to do it again. Yeah, it worked great. Except that it didn't seem ethical. I felt like I was sneaking under a circus tent to avoid buying a ticket.

But the sites in question are actually free, some will argue. All you're doing is bypassing the ridiculous registration process.

I don't see it that way. The sites are not free. The price you must pay to gain access to the sites is contributing information to their marketing surveys. Once you do that, you have "paid" for a subscription and may use the site.

Maybe you don't agree that sneaking in to these sites is unethical. But this is my blog, and I'm saying it is.

So here's the deal: When I link to a site that requires registration, be assured that I have registered there, myself, and thought it was worthwhile to do so. Whether you decide to skip the article in question, or to register and read it, or to zip over to Bugmenot and sneak under the tent is entirely your call.

Hey, we don't have to use these sites. When I object to a registration form, I simply vote against the site by clicking away from it. To me, sneaking in is like cheating an insurance company or pilfering candy from a grocery store. If I don't pay for what I take, somebody else will have to. Because Heinlein was right.


*Tristan, don't think for a moment that I didn't notice you stole my copy when you moved to Chicago.


tristan coulter said...

I knew immediately when I saw the asterisk you were referring to me… Send me my frying pan (and my $10) and I’ll send your book.

Susan Kaye said...

I agree that the web has never been free. Even when it was just a network cobbled together so academics could do research and trade stories about the rigours of teaching, it was still being paid for by taxpayers and through grants from private foundations and businesses.

I agree with what you've said about registering at particularly news sites. I do have a twist. I created an alternate identity for all these sorts of sites. I have an e-mail in that name, but the only things I do not fill out in my own info is name, phone and birthdate (though I do fill in the proper birth year).

I don't mind giving them general demographic info, but specifics that can be used to differentiate me from another woman with my name, I keep to myself.

Brenda Coulter said...

Tristan, is it my fault you failed to pack our "heirloom" iron skillet in that U-Haul trailer?

And I don't remember borrowing $10 from you. But if I did, please go ahead and deduct it from what you owe Dad and me.

Ha! Mom scores again!

Brenda Coulter said...

Susan, you probably realize it's not always necessary to fill in all the blanks on those forms. But for those who don't know that, here's a friendly tip: things like birthdates and phone numbers are usually optional.

tristan coulter said...

Dad told me he'd give me $10. I'm not sure why, I think it had something to do with school. Go back and read the e-mails we cc'd you on. I think he clears it up.

Brenda Coulter said...

Tristan, if you're talking about that $10, let me assure you that your father was being his usual facetious self. As I recall, you said you were going to need $X for the next quarter and he replied that he had $10 he could send you.

Sheesh, kid. Haven't you caught on to his tricks yet?

Anonymous said...

Tristan, honey, I will gladly give you $10.

tristan coulter said...

I'll send you my address.

Donations are gladly accepted. =)

tristan coulter said...

Looking for something?

Brenda Coulter said...

Ugh. It looks like you've been chewing on my book. Never mind, I don't want it back.

I'd just like to point out that it's unwise to torment me on Sunday and then ask for college money on Monday. Know what I mean?

Of course, you can always apply to that tenderhearted aunt of yours for financial aid. She always was a sucker for those blue eyes and that floppy, Hugh Grant hair.

tristan coulter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
tristan coulter said...

It's just been well-read. Besides, I can tease you all I like, because I have a back up plan...
Shall I tell all of your loyal readers what it takes to "buy" you? I know what your weakness is. I've already proved that I know what it takes to make you change your mind. Don't make me do it again...

Bwa hahaha