Paid Knowledge Revolution or Racket?
On May 14, 2016, Zhihu, an online question-and-answer platform in China, launched a program for paid answers. In a year and a half, the emergence of many paid knowledge sharing platforms has changed Chinese netizens’ idea of free sharing, and knowledge has become a new product Chinese people
are willing to purchase.
Who Are Paying for Knowledge?
Angel investor Li Xiaolai’s column “The Way to Financial Independence” is among the most popular ones on the app Igetget. Over 180,000 people have subscribed to the column since it was launched in July 2016. Its subscriber count ranks second only to that of “Xue Zhaofeng’s Economics Lessons.” Li’s column boasts that “the billionaire himself teaches you in person how to make yourself more valuable,” attracting many subscribers eager for financial independence. Luring slogans like “A map for fortune accumulation” and “Find the way to financial independence” outline a vision to get rich. The popularity of such programs fueled the development of paid knowledge sharing platforms. Paid knowledge has ascended to new promising heights in the internet economy. According to the 2017 Report on China’s Sharing Economy , the Chinesemarket for knowledge sharing has already taken shape. It is estimated that the trading volume for knowledge in 2016 reached 61 billion yuan (US$9.3 billion), 205 percent
higher than the previous year, and around 300 million people have now become users of knowledge sharing platforms. From December 1 to 3, 2017, users of Himalaya FM, the largest online audio content platform in China, spent 170 million yuan (US$26 million) during the three-day knowledge carnival launched by the platform. Of all the courses, “Kevin Tsai’s 201 Lessons on EQ,” “Guo Degang’s First Audio Talk Show” and “Super Brain Camp” were among the most popular. Some lessons designed for young people also proved very attractive. According to statistics provided by the
platform, people born in the 1990s contributed nearly 70 percent of the total sales volume during the carnival. Their favorites are lessons on personal development and business. According to an online survey of 1,736
netizens, 55 percent had paid for knowledge at least once, 38 percent of whom were satisfied with the transactions. As for why they are willing to buy knowledge, 74 percent want professional knowledge and insight, 51
percent want to save time and energy, and 47 percent seek more experience to improve themselves. In particular, 63 percent expressed willingness to pay for knowledge or experience that could help them improve work efficiency or increase their incomes. It remains unknown what percentage of
learners have achieved “financial independence,” but it is clear that famous
online teachers like Li Xiaolai have struck gold. “The Way to Financial Independence,” for example, charges an annual subscription fee of 199 yuan (about US$30). Multiplying that by 180,000 subscriptions generates more
than 35 million yuan (US$5.4 million) a year, a sum that certainly guarantees financial independence for Mr. Li.
Distance between “Know” and “Knowledge”
No doubt the emergence of paid knowledge has given the public more channels to learn, and has helped find market value for knowledge. But the quality of such paid programs has started to be questioned. Can we get knowledge just by paying for it? An author of WeChat subscription articles
shared his experience. From January 2016 to June 2017, he bought 67 lectures and classes and attended a writing training program. Afterpaying 5,000 yuan (US$764) in total for such “knowledge,” he felt he didn’t acquire much. It is easy to identify promotional tricks of paid knowledge products: fast, quick, and certain success is promised if the purchaser just follows the teacher’s guide. However, instead of nutritious “food” for the mind, beautifully packaged products are more like fast food. A netizen noted: “What you buy is ‘know,’ not knowledge.” One expert pointed out that people who receive fragmented knowledge for a long period of time will suffer from memory loss. They are inclined to form simple and biased thinking and narrow views, and will be unable to think about complex things and think independently.
Placebo for Knowledge Anxiety
The trend that adult professionals continuously seek learning reflects the uncertainty resulting from rapid economic growth and social transformation.
Uncertainty about the future leads to anxiety about knowledge. As the economy flourishes and new technologies erupt, people feel nervous and get afraid of being left behind by fast-changing society. The slogan of the app Igetget is “Build a university for lifelong study,” which acts like a whip lashing people’s nerves, scaring them of being left behind by the times. Knowledge anxiety and skills panic now gain popularity among modern people. An increasing number of people feel they lack knowledge and
information and need to feel a sense of change. They worry about being left behind. As one netizen put it, “To avoid being left behind, all I can do is learn fast and efficiently to stay abreast with the pace of the times.” This anxiety provides a hotbed for the incubation of a paid knowledge industry, and every platform offers philosophies and theories of famous gurus while promising fast improvement by riding the coattails of the giants to leap into the elite class. Such programs make it seem as though all that is separating the students from the elites is the reasonable cost of several knowledge programs. And people feel like they are staying caught up by soaking up knowledge. However, paid knowledge is just the first step of the long journey of learning. Acquisition of knowledge has always demanded painstaking learning day and night. No matter how greatly society changes, the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom always requires lots of time and energy. Paying money to buy knowledge still isn’t an option.