Shirky was arguing against micropayment advocates, such as Web design expert Jakob Nielsen and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, who likened micropayments to disaggregation-that is, the selling of Web content one page at a time. Most of us, Shirky claimed, would be paralyzed if we had to decide how much we were willing to pay for, say, one single section of a newspaper; we’d rather just cough up the fifty cents and buy the whole thing. But such extreme disaggregation is only one possible (and hardly the most desirable) outcome of a micropayments system. You can decide for yourself how much anxiety such transactions would produce. For the moment, I would settle for being able to buy a single issue of the New York Times online at a newsstand rate or lower without having to invest in a long-term subscription.The BitPass experiment suggests a different model, one that at least partially addresses Shirky’s concerns about micropayments. Content providers are using micropayments to set prices at a level that they think their market will bear-prices lower than subscriptions or credit card purchases, but not necessarily so low that they become like a series of mosquito pricks. I don’t experience confusion trying to decide whether McCloud’s story is worth a quarter and I experience no more stress watching my BitPass drain away “unpredictably” than I face when I use my phone card to make a series of calls.
Some posters on various discussion lists are outraged that McCloud wants to charge anything for his content. They see micropayments as betraying the gift economy of the early Web era. But these people are trying to close the barn door after the cow has escaped. There will always be an abundance of free content on the Web, much of it produced by passionate amateurs or academic institutions. And though many of my favorite online publications now charge monthly or annual subscription fees, some still allow you to sample the content for free, or give you limited access if you are willing to sit through an online advertisement or allow them to datamine you. Surely, we don’t want to create a medium where corporations can get paid and artisans cannot.
The question isn’t whether we will pay for content: We already are. The question is how, and how much. Both advocates and opponents of micropayments assume that micropayments have to work everywhere on the Web or they are not worth exploring. And critics say that it is difficult to imagine changing the basic mechanism of online commerce. BitPass is lowering the stakes by experimenting with micropayments in specific content domains where they would seem to offer buyers and sellers the greatest advantage. The Web isn’t going to evolve toward a single business model very soon, so all we need to decide now is whether micropayments represent a valuable option that will work well in some contexts, for some kinds of content, with some kinds of users.
I vote yes. Sure, micropayments were over-sold-but let’s not undervalue them now. In some cases, where you want to build an ongoing relationship with a particular content provider, subscriptions will represent a better alternative. In others, we may prefer to pay only for the content we want to access. This is not a novel situation; after all, many of us subscribe to some publications and purchase others off the newsstand when a particular issue has content that seems interesting, or when we feel we have time to read them.