There was a discussion on Mefi about “Peak Ads“. Supposedly Internet advertising is all broken and shit, which is bad news for sites that depend on advertising.

But that’s not why we’re here today. No, we’re here because a couple of schmos brought up micropayments, which will save everything, and have been standing by ready to save everything for more than 20 years now.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest

  • We should probably give up on the idea
  • We kind of have them already

I remember reading about the idea in Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics (2000).  He liked the idea because, he says, people won’t spend $10 for an online comic, but they’ll spend 30¢.

Back in 2003, Lore Sjöberg didn’t think it would work:

The Web-wide reticence among independent artists to actually hunker down and charge for material is because we know that if we did so, we wouldn’t get fame or fortune. We’d get, at best, beer money and a clique.

That is, if you have 10,000 readers when you’re a free website, you can’t estimate your potential income by multiplying 10,000 by 30¢.  “Ooh, I could get $3,000 for one web page!”  No, because when you raise the price, even to a frippance, your readership will plummet.

Most of the micropayments people were, I think, thinking not as readers but as creators, or at least on behalf of them.  Be honest: you read the web all day long, how often do you have the impulse to toss 30¢ at an author?  Not often, I’ll bet.   The web is built on costless impulse clicking. If you had a little 30¢ roadblock to get anywhere, you’d probably hang it up and play video games instead.

Besides, the problem with micropayments is that creators would get micropaid.  Suppose you couldn’t see my bitchin’ new conlang, Dhekhnami, without forking over 30¢. Let me be generous and assume that 100 people would do so. That’s $30, for several months of work. Beer money, as Lore says.

But it’s not 2003 any more. What do we have?  Arguably, something better than micropayments:

  • Paypal, which allows pretty much anyone with e-mail to safely offer services over the web, and allows payments down to about $0.31.  (There’s a fixed fee to the seller, so it actually costs the seller money to offer things for less.)
  • Print on demand and e-books, which allow anyone to publish.
  • Kickstarter, which allows the medium-famous to move a project along.
  • Patreon, which allows readers to pledge a small amount per creation.
  • Greenlight, where Steam allows indie game creators to sell their crappy games.  OK, they’re not all crappy, but I just got burned on one and I’m pissed.

What this allows is a mixed model: offer content for free; sell physical objects for cash money.  For instance, I’ve read the nearly 1000 episodes of Order of the Stick online without paying a dime. But I’ve spent– let’s see–  688 dimes on OOTS books.

Or take Erika Moen’s extremely NSFW, extremely adorable Oh Joy Sex Toy.  Her comic is free, but she’s doing a Kickstarter for a print book, which has so far raised $46,000, plus she’s got something like $1000 a month coming in from Patreon.  Hey, people love cute sex comics.

And it turns out that people are reasonably fond of linguistics, too.  I make a scant living from writing books on languages, conlanging, and worldbuilding, something that wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t spent 20 years first creating a huge, free website.

So, people aren’t willing to pay 30¢ a page to browse the web, but they are willing to pay $15 when you’ve amassed a book’s worth of content.  And that’s good, because chunks of $15 add up a hell of a lot faster than dribbles of 30¢. Plus the bigger chunks make for a certain quality threshold, in that you can’t make money unless you can actually produce book-length chunks of readable content.

Mefi itself has been having financial problems– for unknown reasons their Google ad revenue halved, and they had to let half the moderator staff go.  The readership basically said, “Screw all the research that says no one will pay for web content and take our money.”  Over 3000 people have made a one-time payment or signed up for a recurring one.  So the physical object isn’t always necessary.

Now, we’re still talking niches and long tails.  But then, micropayments were not going to allow a million artists to make a living with webcomics.  And anyway, it’s a big plus to get rid of some of the gatekeepers; a lot of stuff is available that wouldn’t exist if it had to be selected by some guy in a suit first.

In between paragraphs I’ve been browsing Reinventing Comics, and I’ve gotta say… I love McCloud, but he was seriously loopy about the infinite canvas thing, too.