Blogging for Dollars

Over at the Wired Epicenter blog, people are speculating that Next Monday’s big announcement from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg will be a webmail client, aimed directly at stealing Google’s technological thunder.

Reaction from commenters was universally negative. People complained about privacy concerns, made silly FailMail jokes and observed that Google would be pretty hard to beat in terms of simplicity, reliability and functionality.

But the comment that caught my eye was this:

“I’ll sign up at Failmail when Zuckerberg personally starts sending my PP around 40$ a month.”

Haha, very fu- Hang on a sec….

On reflection, that probably would work, wouldn’t it? Zuckerberg could do that, too. Well, not for everyone, certainly not all the time. But think about it: Knowing what we do about human nature, what’s to stop someone from creating a social networking site that operated using cash as a measure of social connectedness and success?

The mechanism would be simple enough. Members join for a nominal fee, not high enough to be painful, but enough so that someone would have to make a deliberate decision to join. More to the point, it would have to be enough that, for many, peer pressure would be necessary to drive them into the fold. Once there, an algorithm would identify the most connected, popular and useful members of the community and award them a share of the pot.

Call it a Social Credit Union.

Right, you’re probably thinking. Exactly how many seconds would it take for someone to begin gaming the system for money? The answer is alarmingly simple: as long as people like something and/or find it interesting, who cares? As Randall Munro so aptly put it: “Mission. Fucking. Accomplished.”

Seriously, as long as the integrity of the metrics and the security of the cash flow are not compromised, it won’t really matter how someone connects with others, impresses and/or influences them. I’ll grant you, the potential for absurdity is very high, especially when one considers just how stupid people are willing to be for free.

Humanity may have some spectacular examples of its inanity, its shallowness and its capacity for self-deception. But they are, happily, in proportion to its ability to explore beauty, wit and learning. A social credit union would reward each without fear or favour.

The capitalists in the audience are no doubt asking why someone would pay -and continue to pay- for a service that a) they could get for free; and b) which rewards others but costs them? It’s been demonstrated time and again that people will actually deny themselves in order to spite others. Surely the service would last exactly long enough for it to be castigated as a cesspool of self-promoting poseurs, a pyramid preying on the socially naive?

Yeah, that could happen. In fact, it’s as likely an outcome as any other. I’d give odds that if you started a dozen of these, 8 of them would implode within months. But here’s the thing: with the right dynamic and the right ethos, it could succeed, and those who wish they could spend more time writing, researching arcana, making fanvids… doing all of those niche activities that add spice and, occasionally, actual art to our online existence – some of them, at least, could prosper.

The vast majority of people would never get more than a few pennies back, of course. Which leads the Adam Smith devotees in the audience to ask, ‘Who in their right mind would pay for something that they could otherwise get for free, and continue to pay even after it becomes clear that they will likely never be rewarded for their use of the service?’

The answer is dead simple. People pay to phone and text; they pay for Internet; they pay club memberships; they buy people beers; they spend vast amounts of money trying to buy social credit. As long as they receive a useful level of service (for some amalgam of collective and individual perception of what constitutes service), and as long as membership is less costly than being left out, they will pay.

This is not a new Athenian Agora we’d be building[*]. The most likely people to profit will be the very same people we hated in high school: Pretty, cool, witty and self-assured, funnier and sometimes -only sometimes- smarter and more interesting than the rest of us. Nonetheless, if you’re a creative person looking for a way to survive in the 1st Century of the Internet, this is probably your best hope.

[*] Well, actually, it is. Remember that the Agora was not only where Socrates sat with his students, but where the whores, petty thieves, shysters, con men and plain old merchants all hung out.