Again With the Micro-Payments

Rex Sorgatz posted a quick and dirty re-think of how micro-payments could be made to work in a present-day web-browsing scenario. Again, I question the premise of the problem micro-payment purports to solve.

My fundamental objection to online payment is that most people won’t pay for something of unknown value. Speaking for myself (and a few others I know), the moment a website starts putting obstacles between me and the content I want to access, it’s easier for me to move on than it is to leap whatever interface hurdles are barring my path.

That’s because:

  1. I refuse to buy something sight unseen. In the material world, I can at least take a look at the package and compare with a few competing products before I pull out my wallet. On the Web, I can’t really know whether something is worthwhile until I’ve had a look. For a bit of writing of less than 5000 words, that means I need to see most – if not all – of it before I decide what it’s worth to me. For a short video, that means all of it. (The mere idea of a trailer for a 15 minute video makes me shudder.)
  2. The whole point of micro-payment is that the amount is ‘throw-away’ money. Increments so small that we don’t even have to think about it. Forcing someone through the UI equivalent of a toll booth creates an impediment that’s out of scale with the benefit.
  3. As I mentioned before: Online payment is not really payment, it’s reward. So much comes free with the price of admission (i.e. an Internet connection) that the only way we can assess the value of content is in the context of a gift economy. Think of it as a pay-as-you-exit performance, or busking, if you like. Modulo a few stingy, poorly socialised freeloaders, anyone who really enjoyed the show will happily toss a few coins into the hat. But not before they’ve seen the show.

To sum up: It’s best to leave interface and program flow issues alone until we’ve established the proper intellectual framework. Conceptualising a rewards system generates very diffierent results than a payment system. Given that reward and payment systems are both easily circumvented, the only thing we can rely on is the visitor’s goodwill. Place a little box at the exit, allow people to click right past it if they want, and you’ll never have any complaints about access to data.

More to the point, everyone who gives, gives gladly. This is more than just a moral point. The importance of goodwill from one’s website visitors cannot be understated. Remember: karma comes first, reward later, when it comes to online success. In fact, karma is the primary reward. Cash is just a symbolic representation of the goodwill people feel toward you.

P.S. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can accept that others’ failure to give us money is not an interface failure, nor is it a failure in their judgement. For better or for worse, if people aren’t willing to give money of their free will, then the failing is ours, not theirs.

I suspect that some manifestation of the Endowment Effect underlies most efforts to control access to online content. It’s irrational in the online context, but it’s human nonetheless to say, “I worked hard to produce this. I have a right to be paid for it.

Those of us who have more or less grown up online have fewer reservations about the benefits of sharing content without precondition, and I suspect such expectations will become the norm for at least a significant subset of society before too very long.