Nice Work if You Can Get It

Andrew Sullivan links to a few posts about the continual struggle to make the Internet pay. Personally, I find both sides of this online payment argument silly. Neither Felix Salmon nor Seth Roberts are on the mark, and neither of them really understand what motivates people to make payments for non-material goods delivered over the Internet.

Micro-payment for Internet content is not flawed in and of itself. Like so many nice ideas, though, it has few decent exemplars at this stage of the development of the Internet.

People will find a way to manage micro-payments, and some people will profit thereby. Why? Because people are willing to reward people for their contributions. Radiohead made significant profits from the online release of their album ‘In Rainbows’. Many people paid more than the recommended minimum contribution Radiohead requested. President Obama’s online campaign was premised not on sales but on the moral argument that people should participate in the process of change. The monetary exchange in each case was symbolic; it was not payment for services rendered but reward for exemplary behaviour.

This really is the crux of the issue: Internet content is part of a gift economy, an economy of plenitude that bears a stronger resemblance to the West Coast native practice of potlatch than anything Adam Smith might have envisioned.

Simply put, people don’t pay for things on the Internet; they don’t have to. So we create content as a labour of love, and if people value it, they reward us, first with their attention, then, in certain circumstances, with their material support.

I put all my columns and photos online simply out of a desire to communicate. The fact that I’ve been able to parlay this output into a consultancy that is earning me more now than my previous salaried position is more than a happy accident, that’s true. My web presence is my calling card. But I would publish my material online regardless. The bottom line is that I love the act of creation, and I feel gratified when people derive some value from it.

Some people have recognised my expertise in my particular niche of the online world – and its applicability to their needs – and that provides enough income enough to keep me working online. Their rewards make my online work possible.

Lastly: Seth’s response is based on a false premise. The vast majority of Open Source developers are well remunerated for their efforts. This is a perfect case in point: Those who benefit from an improved environment (in this case, commoditised, easily customised software) are usually willing to reward those whose work improves it.

None of us have a well-developed understanding of how things will play out in online content creation. But we have to stop thinking about it in terms of product and sale. It’s reward for services rendered.