Saturday, March 30, 2013

Making the web pay, one cent at a time

The internet has killed arts & media funding, just as we need more of it. What to do?

What do we want an economy for? Isn't it to give us more of what we want, and less of what we don't? But somehow through the last few decades, our collective aims have devolved into providing the financial gambling industry more money and keeping the poor down. It doesn't have to be that way.

We are a very rich country with lots of unemployed people. More and more of our basic needs are filled ever more efficiently. Wouldn't you think that arts and other forms of culture would be a bigger part of our lives than they currently are? Yes, there are industries of film, TV, and music, but they are being hammered by the disappearance of their gatekeeper functions, replaced by the wide-open, share-everything internet.

One would think that one form of employment we could all agree on is the performing, teaching, and propagation of music and other arts- some of the most positive experiences possible. But ironically, just as digital technology made spreading music and visual art (and recipes, and cranky opinions) easier than ever, the same process has rendered it economically perilous. When there is no gatekeeper, no restrictions, no scarcity, there is no income, by the typical business model. The same applies to the news media, likewise being destroyed by free information.

Music hasn't become less culturally important or desirable, but it has become markedly less profitable. The only franchise really left is live performance, which has undeniable scarcity.

Other countries make much more generous government-sponsored provision for the arts. Yet in the US, the measly amount sent to the National Endowment for the Arts and the public broadcasters is perpetually under threat from what Bobby Jindal calls "the stupid party". Certainly one option is to expand those avenues for funding.

But I think a more powerful way is to finally implement a concept that has been knocking around the internet for a long time- micropayments. If every download, every listen, every view, and every complete pageview were worth a cent, then the economics of our media lives would be transformed.

Bob Cringely recently wrote a post about how the economics of his own blog were just not working out. Even with 10 million page views on a typical posting, his ad rates are miserable. When was the last time you clicked on an internet ad? But if each of his readers contributed one cent after reading a full posting, he would be rolling in money, at very little individual cost to his readership. Heck, even I could earn a couple of beers out of such a scheme!

We have been addled by the advertising model of media funding. It is an appalling way to conduct our media lives in aesthetic terms, and inefficient, and has empowered some of the most socially destructive actors, culturally and politically (think of all those greenwashing ads by oil companies). Even public broadcasting is being gradually eroded by its exposure to advertising, since its model of having its viewers/listeners pay voluntarily (after relentless hectoring) doesn't work very well either.

If a heavy web surfer looks at, say, 200 sites per day, and reads fully, say fifty pages per day, that amounts to fifty cents spent. Add to that thirty songs listened to and ten videos watched, and it all adds up to a dollar, which seems like a very acceptable cost structure to the user.

Likewise, hooking up iTunes to a micropayment scheme on a per-play basis could fully unleash the internet for music, allowing all music to be open everywhere, and paid on the basis of actual use and enjoyment. The same for Youtube. Viral videos would be paid in appropriate fashion, by the masses who enjoy them.

So, rather than complicated and imprecise pay walls as they currently exist, a much better solution would be to reconstruct the internet on a broad micropayment foundation. Providers would choose whether to demand standard micropayments for their content (and thus be part of a very low-threshold paywall). Users would be blocked from those sites if they had not enabled an overall micropayment system on their browser with an associated account. If the rate is set low enough, i.e. one cent, I think it would be a no-brainer for everyone to participate. I think that the buy-in would be rapid and universal, and would transform our media landscape.

One benefit would be that advertising would be subject to new pressures. If providers only get paid after a user reads their post fully (scrolling down to the end, or paging to the end, or watching to the end), then having ads which clutter up the page and slow down readers would be selected against, and would only survive if they paid more than the users being turned away. Multi-page posts might be a thing of the past, among many other sins of design.

It is time to take back the internet for its users, and away from the corporations that are muddying its waters while inadvertantly bleeding so many other industries dry. Micropayments did not take off at the beginning of the internet, since the network was so small, and advertising seemed an easier method. But now might be a better time to bring that idea back.

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