How to Build a 'Paywall' That Doesn't Break the Web

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Last weekend, my sideproject Longshot Magazine, created a new issue of our publication. As part of that, we decided to try to build a new kind of paywall. Our editors and developers got together and came up with some requirements for the kind of paywall we wanted:

  • It would encourage, not discourage, sharing.
  • It would be porous.
  • It would allow you purchase the magazine for a variable amount of money, including paying with social capital. ("Pay what you want.")
  • You'd only have to pay once to get access on all of your devices.

In short, this was a complex little project. And we realized it wasn't exactly a paywall. It was more of a "nagwall" because you could make it go away anytime you wanted to for free. I think Choire Sicha of The Awl had it just right when he wrote about the spirit of the thing, "It's a direct ask for something people can give. It's definitely not a demand. It's good-humored. And it's a relatively simple interface. I'd love to see what people build on from there."
Keep in mind that our (ridiculously talented and dedicated) developers Matthew Gerring, Joey Baker, Kevin Koehler, Heather Billings, and our digital lead Adam Hemphill only started on this thing late Friday night. It was done by the end of Sunday.

I wondered on our email list how they'd managed to do it. Gerring responded and gave me permission to post that here. 

Technically, the nag wall is really simple -- it's just a javascript popup that checks for a cookie. We set which stories will have the nag wall turned off in the backend -- it's on by default.

There are several levels of "rewards" depending on how you interact with the paywall. Sharing will turn off the nag wall for 1 year, or until you clear your browser cache, view the article in a different browser or on a different computer. Donating some money lets you register an account -- if you're logged in, the nag wall never appears. You also get some extra features on the site if you have an account.

Like the New York Times paywall, people who poke around in the source code should be able to figure out how to turn it off without interacting with it at all. For the adventurous, there are also a couple of easter eggs that defeat the paywall in amusing ways (but I'm not giving them away here).

By doing all this, we turn the paywall into a game instead of an obligation, because what we're really after is engagement, not your money.

Baker added:

That's pretty much it -- the only thing I'd say is that it was implemented quickly and without security in mind. It's both slightly buggy and really, easy to defeat. But, that was a choice -- we could have easily built a more draconian system that demanded homage to the Nagwhal before allowing passage.

My takeaway is that the technical resources are not really the issue when it comes to paywalls. We are limited mostly by our creativity and the legacy feelings we have about how people "should have to pay" for the creative work we produce. Once we realize that there are multiple currencies that are actually all pretty valuable for publications, then we open up a lot more options for payment, and we don't break the web.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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