17 votes

Paywalls, and the difficulty of accurately tagging them

The distinction between Hard and Soft paywalls used to be clear:

Hard paywall sites only allowed paying subscribers to view their contents;
Soft paywall sites typically used a metered approach that limited non-subscribers to a certain number of free article views per month.

This made tagging paywalled submission here on Tildes, as either paywall.hard or paywall.soft, pretty easy to do, and doing so provided tangible benefits. They let submitters know when to consider providing a summary of the article, or even mirror/alternative links, so non-subscribers weren't left out. It allowed users to easily avoid or filter-out hard paywall submissions entirely, if they so chose. And also indicated when a paywall was soft, and easier to get around (e.g. by clearing browser cache, or viewing in private-browsing mode), so the article could still be read.

However in recent years the distinction between Hard and Soft paywalls has become increasingly blurry. And with all the new, constantly evolving, often opaque, paywall mechanics now in play, it has become more difficult to identify and keep track of what type of paywall a site has. E.g.

Some sites have begun adding article sharing mechanics as a perk for their subscribers (NYT). Some with hard paywalls now allow certain articles of "public interest" to be viewed by everyone (Financial Times). Some still hard paywall their print articles but allow the rest to be viewed for free (Forbes). Some have hard paywalls for recent articles but older ones are free (Boston Globe). Some decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to paywall each individual article, based on editorial board decisions and other unspecified metrics (Business Insider). And apparently some now even switch from Soft to Hard paywalls depending on where in the world the traffic is coming from (WaPo?).

And as a result of all this, accurately tagging paywalled articles here has become increasingly difficult too, especially since there is no easy way to update all previously applied tags on older articles when a site's paywall type changes.

So, the question is, what should we do about this?
Should we simply stop trying to distinguish between hard/soft paywalls in the tags?
Should we add another "hybrid" category?
Should we just do away with the paywall tag entirely?
Or is there a better solution to this problem?

p.s. I started a "Hard vs Soft Paywalls" wiki entry to try to keep track of all the paywall types, as well as the various new mechanics I have been able to identify, for the sites commonly submitted to Tildes.

12 comments

  1. [3]
    Deimos
    Link
    Personally, I've never really felt like I understood the value of the paywall tag. It seemed like some people felt pretty strongly about adding it though, and having more tags doesn't really hurt...

    Personally, I've never really felt like I understood the value of the paywall tag. It seemed like some people felt pretty strongly about adding it though, and having more tags doesn't really hurt anything other than some minor clutter in a couple of places, so I haven't worried about it. Since I never even notice if a topic has it or not, it's hard for me to suggest much, but I'd say to probably try to think about what purpose you're trying to serve with it, and see if the tag (with or without soft/hard/etc. sub-tags) accomplishes that, or if there might be some other approach.

    In general though, I feel like tags should focus more on the content itself, and not more "meta" things like characteristics of the site it's hosted on. That's kind of an infinite rabbit-hole where you could end up with people wanting to tag topics with their own pet preferences like whether the site requires Javascript, whether it has a light or dark theme, and so on. I also feel a little weird about it because (as you're talking about) the paywall status isn't even always the same for different users, locations, etc. It seems strange to me that it can change over time as well, and that a tag might need to be added or removed if the link is changed to a different copy of the exact same content (a common case is when an article is paywalled somewhere like WSJ but freely available through MSN). None of that's necessarily wrong, but it just feels off to me.

    10 votes
    1. cfabbro
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      Yeah, TBH, when I was writing the topic-text for this post I actually found myself struggling to even come up with that modest list of "tangible benefits" to the paywall tags, and some of those...

      Yeah, TBH, when I was writing the topic-text for this post I actually found myself struggling to even come up with that modest list of "tangible benefits" to the paywall tags, and some of those are already a stretch. As a result, I'm also starting to question whether the paywall tags are worth including now too, and definitely find myself leaning in the "not worth it" direction.

      And that's a good point about meta tags being an infinite rabbit hole too. E.g. Someone here already mentioned adblock nag screens. And the list of meta elements we could keep track of is basically endless, but would add a tremendous amount of administrative overhead to the tagging system if we did, for negligible benefit.

      So from now on, if submitters want to keep including paywall tags, and other users with tagging rights want to put in the effort to keep them accurate/up-to-date, that's fine with me... But I think I'm personally going to avoid dealing with paywall tags going forwards.

      5 votes
    2. MetArtScroll
      Link Parent
      There is a difference between “You must turn on Javascript to see the content” or “If you want a light/dark theme, use a browser extension or copy the content and read it offline,” on the one...

      That's kind of an infinite rabbit-hole where you could end up with people wanting to tag topics with their own pet preferences like whether the site requires Javascript, whether it has a light or dark theme, and so on.

      There is a difference between “You must turn on Javascript to see the content” or “If you want a light/dark theme, use a browser extension or copy the content and read it offline,” on the one hand, and “You must register and/or pay to see the content,” on the other hand.

      I also feel a little weird about it because (as you're talking about) the paywall status isn't even always the same for different users, locations, etc. It seems strange to me that it can change over time as well, and that a tag might need to be added or removed…

      As for geolocks, I did suggest a geolock tag. It might be really useful that the users are informed that it may happen that they may not view the content at all just because they happen to be in the wrong part of the world.

      As for changing over time, I would say that it really matters what the status at the time the topic is posted is. Maybe if it is anticipated that the article is going to be un-paywalled within, say, a month, then the submitter can make a notice… or rather just post the topic when the content is free. Otherwise, I would not bother with updating paywall tags on old topics.

      2 votes
  2. [3]
    hungariantoast
    (edited )
    Link
    First, I just want to plug this Firefox extension because it works well: Bypass Paywalls Clean Second, I think we should just have a single paywall tag and leave it at that. For the majority of...

    First, I just want to plug this Firefox extension because it works well: Bypass Paywalls Clean

    Second, I think we should just have a single paywall tag and leave it at that.

    For the majority of users here, it takes seconds to click a link, visit an article, and see if you're going to get past its paywall or not. I don't think a "soft" or "hard" differentiation is really all that useful at the moment. For websites that waste your time before hitting you with a hard paywall, such as by letting you read half the article before blocking further access, then those would probably be worth tagging as paywall.hard, but I think they should be the exception.

    There are just so many ways and reasons that sites implement paywalls. Some people won't see them at all. Some people can get around them trivially. Others will be dead in the water.

    Because everyone encounters paywalls differently and for different reasons, I'm skeptical that the existing schema of tagging paywalled articles as "soft" or "hard" is 'universally true enough' for the userbase visiting those articles, as to make the schema actually useful or indicative of what a user is going to experience.


    Third, having said all that, my philosophy, so far, towards those tags has been this:

    • If there is a way, any way at all, around the paywall that does not cost money or require visiting another website, then the paywall is "soft" and I will tag/re-tag it accordingly. For instance, this topic was tagged paywall.hard, but I just opened that page and had access to the entire article, so I re-tagged it as paywall.soft.

    • If I were to post a topic whose article I could not read because I was not able to get around its paywall, I would tag it as paywall.hard and expect anyone else who could access the article to change the tag.

    • If I visit a topic and cannot get around its article's paywall, and it does not already have a paywall tag, then I will tag it as paywall.hard.

    • If I visit a topic that is tagged paywall.soft, but I cannot get around its article's paywall, I will leave the tag alone because it seems like someone else got around the paywall.

    So, in this little philosophy of mine, the paywall.soft tag is treated as "sacred" and should not be changed pretty much ever, unless it's absolutely clear that an article's paywall truly was "hard" for everyone, and not just me.

    However, the paywall.hard tag is treated in the opposite way. Even just one person who can, for whatever reason, get past the paywall without paying money or visiting another website, makes the paywall "soft".

    I think, if we're going to stick to using just two tags, paywall.hard and paywall.soft, then this is the best approach. It allows paywall.soft to basically be a way of saying "hey, someone managed to get past the paywall", whereas paywall.hard should be indicative that you're almost certainly not getting around the paywall without spending money or visiting another website.


    Though, like I mentioned above, I don't really think tagging articles with paywalls as "soft" or "hard" is very useful. I mean, what we've got going on right now, or my little philosophy described above, aren't exactly difficult to maintain, I just struggle to see the point 🤷

    9 votes
    1. [2]
      zonk
      Link Parent
      I've just typed out a lengthy response why I'd prefer no tags over incorrect ones that I forgot to send, but I like your system :D It's not intuitive as a tag maintainer but I don't think that...

      I've just typed out a lengthy response why I'd prefer no tags over incorrect ones that I forgot to send, but I like your system :D It's not intuitive as a tag maintainer but I don't think that this applies to 95% of the users anyway, since they just consume or share stuff, but don't maintain tags.
      One problem with this system is, that the paywall.soft tag would stay with Boston Globe articles, even when there's no paywall anymore (which doesn't disturb anything, to be fair). Another problem (which I'm not sure if it exists yet): if websites start to dynamically add and remove hard paywalls, depending on demand/age/other factors of the article, you'd have to switch between paywall.soft and paywall.hard all the time. And if that happens, having the information there in form of tags gets kind of diluted and therefore less useful and a certain point users start ignoring it, which would be a shame. So I'd rather have a system that has vague information that's more often/longer correct than an extensive tag system that is commonly wrong.

      3 votes
      1. hungariantoast
        Link Parent
        Well, if there's no paywall, then that's a very soft paywall ;) I would also say that if an article switches between having a soft and hard paywall, then overall, the paywall is soft If we really...

        Well, if there's no paywall, then that's a very soft paywall ;)

        I would also say that if an article switches between having a soft and hard paywall, then overall, the paywall is soft

        If we really wanted to add more paywall.* tags, then maybe paywall.soft.timelock would be useful for Boston Globe-like articles, but I personally don't think having more than two different paywall tags is worth it. The default settings for users actually hide most tags on the topic listing page, so it's not clear how many users even see, let alone care, about this little folksonomy we've got going on. Mainly because of that, I think it'd be better to keep the system simple and stupid than hyper-accurate

        5 votes
  3. MetArtScroll
    Link
    I would say that if a specific article is paywalled (hard or soft), then it should be tagged accordingly, whereas non-paywalled articles should not be tagged. The case of location-determined...

    I would say that if a specific article is paywalled (hard or soft), then it should be tagged accordingly, whereas non-paywalled articles should not be tagged.

    The case of location-determined paywalls is trickier. In some cases a geolock tag would suffice (just as with geolocked YouTube videos).

    As for article sharing, if the site allows sharing in the context of social media (so it is possible to post the sharing link on Tildes and anyone with the link will be able to view), then maybe the submitter should be recommended to state that the paywall does not apply.

    3 votes
  4. [5]
    Tardigrade
    Link
    Do adblock paywalls count as soft paywalls?

    Do adblock paywalls count as soft paywalls?

    1 vote
    1. [4]
      cfabbro
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      Those aren't really paywalls, IMO, they're just adblock nag screens. So I have never personally tagged any sites with those as paywall, hard or soft.

      Those aren't really paywalls, IMO, they're just adblock nag screens. So I have never personally tagged any sites with those as paywall, hard or soft.

      2 votes
      1. [3]
        admicos
        Link Parent
        semi unrelated tip: ublock origin will try it's best to bypass the "hard" adblock-walls by default, but the "soft" adblock-walls need the annoyance filters to be enabled from it's settings this is...

        semi unrelated tip: ublock origin will try it's best to bypass the "hard" adblock-walls by default, but the "soft" adblock-walls need the annoyance filters to be enabled from it's settings

        this is also one of the reasons why ublock origin developers don't recommend you combine it with other ad blockers (at least the ones that use EasyList)

        5 votes
        1. [2]
          petrichor
          Link Parent
          Fanboy's Annoyance, or uBlock filters - Annoyance?

          Fanboy's Annoyance, or uBlock filters - Annoyance?

          1. admicos
            Link Parent
            I personally enable everything except Anti-Facebook (need WhatsApp Web rarely) and EasyList Cookie (should be redundant w/ Fanboy's Annoyance) I think it would be uBlock Filters, but I doubt...

            I personally enable everything except Anti-Facebook (need WhatsApp Web rarely) and EasyList Cookie (should be redundant w/ Fanboy's Annoyance)

            I think it would be uBlock Filters, but I doubt enabling Fanboy's as well would break anything important

            3 votes