RIP CompuServe, my old stamping ground. This venerable online community was my introduction to online world, and once made my pockets jingle with loose change, since I was someone who actually earned money by moderating a forum there. It was quite possibly the only online venue I fully understood--at least from a financial point of view.
Let me start out by explaining that the reason I didn't get a postgraduate degree is that I failed economics. Multiple times and by a wide margin. I thought it was because I didn't understand money, but I do understand money. At least, I understand it at a household and personal level, and paradoxically, I learned it not in Econ 101 but in scripture classes at school. From the story of Joseph, to be exact (and to be more exact, mostly from listening to songs about his amazing technicolor dreamcoat so I didn't have to reread the book too often).
The lesson (drawn from Joseph's interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream) was this: There will be seven years of plenty during which you should save up your surplus, followed by seven years of famine during which you'll need to draw on your savings. This nugget of wisdom sprang Joseph from jail and made him powerful in the Egyptian court, making Joseph the first and probably only financial advisor in history to (a) begin his career in jail, instead of ending it there and (b) issue conservative financial advice that rich people took seriously.
The number of years fluctuate--especially on Internet time--but the principle remains the same: Don't squander your surplus because it won't always be there.
Most of my income of the past two decades has tracked the vagaries of the computer world. It was economics at its most Marxian: Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I exchanged services (writing) for money (which came from two sources--magazine subscriptions and print advertising dollars). Later, I earned money managing online communities. I spent vast tracts of my early career on CompuServe and other old-school online communities. The experience earned me money from sources I could understand (visitors paid for every minute of their online time, and CompuServe shared a cut of that with forum operators they called SysOps, of whom I was one).
This easy-to-follow money trail is one reason I took my time getting my head around the whole commercial Internet thing. Content is what keeps people coming back, and if people aren't paying for sites, where will the quality content come from?
As it turns out, sites did find money to pay for content providers (like me) to write articles, such as my most recent one about CompuServe and other old-school online communities. But I'm still not sure where that money is coming from. Readers aren't paying--at least, they're not paying anyone except their ISP, and ISPs aren't paying content sites anything.
Initially, I assumed the money came from venture capital, but are venture capitalists really so nice as to subsidize the world's click-and-read habit indefinitely? Of course not. And after fifteen years of it, surely they would have stopped by now. One of these days, I'll figure out the source of my online income, which dates back to early 1995, the year I first became a Web columnist. But for now, I'm just cranking it out...often writing about CompuServe and other old-school online communities that made sense to me...from an economic perspective at least.
And until the next seven-year cycle of plenty, I'm spending the money I earned during the Web bubble years. I have had to: I already sold my amazing technicolor dreamcoat on eBay.