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Similarly, most of us will subscribe to a finite range of Web content-just as most of us subscribe to only a few (if any) premium cable channels. An economy based exclusively on subscriptions would evolve toward media concentration because subscriptions play to the advantage of large media companies that can offer the broadest range of content. Only rarely do alternative artists get their acts together to form subscription-based services. In the case of Web comics, for example, a number of independent artists have teamed up to create Modern Tales, a subscription-based service that for $2.95 a month provides unlimited access to the work of more than 30 alternative comics creators. Micropayments would support the fragmentation and diversification of Web content, allowing a broader range of producers to compete for our entertainment dollars.

Critics argue that since you need to put three bucks into the BitPass system before you can buy any content, then BitPass is little more than a subscription system by another name. They say they would be happy to give McCloud a quarter for his comic but that still leaves them with $2.75 worth of content they don’t necessarily want to buy. Right now, this is a potential disincentive, since BitPass is in beta test and has relations with only a few content providers. But one system need not take over the Web in order to have a demonstrable impact on Web culture. If McCloud’s experiment is successful, his visibility within the Web comics community will attract other artists, creating a Mecca for comics fans.

People who like comics tend to read a broad selection and are often willing to try unknown artists if the content is cheap and accessible. One can imagine micropayments thriving within other niche media communities as well: hardcore gamers could use micropayments the way they use tokens in an arcade; popular music lovers might think of themselves as plopping quarters in a well-stocked jukebox. For digital movie fans, this could represent a return to the nickelodeon era. A micropayment system like BitPass would allow consumers to experiment with new content but also to place their support behind specific artists whose work they find consistently rewarding and interesting. Ultimately, they are paying for only the content they consume-and not shelling out a fixed sum every month.

Micropayments will be most attractive where a range of small scale producers are trying to service the needs of committed and motivated consumers, where the reputation of certain pioneers will help to generate an initial market and create coattails for other less well-known artists, and where the price point remains lower than traditional credit cards can accommodate. As content providers cluster, then it becomes less and less likely that you are going to be left with unused portions of your BitPass payment.

I doubt that micropayments will totally displace other ways of paying for content online. More likely, many content providers will offer both micropayments for occasional or impulse buyers and subscriptions for more committed followers. Yet I am hoping that something like BitPass survives as an alternative that allows me to make smaller purchases online, to read one issue of a publication, download one song, play one game, or retrieve one important article from the archives. As is so often the case, we need to think about micropayments less as a revolutionary new technology and more as part of a long term evolution in the ways we think about online content.

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