The Internet's Original Sin

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Users will pay for services that they love. Reddit, the lively recommendation and discussion community, sells Reddit Gold subscriptions that give users special privileges and the ability to turn off ads. (Those ads, by the way, are a lot less intrusive than those on most social networks.) Reddit advertises Gold both by detailing benefits of membership and setting “daily goals” for gold subscriptions, telling readers, “We believe the more reddit can be user-supported, the freer we will be to make reddit the best it can be.” A culture has developed of giving a month’s Reddit gold membership to someone whose comments or content you’ve especially appreciated, rewarding both the individual and the community as a whole. It would be interesting to see if Facebook could support a premium model. I suspect many people use Facebook because they feel they have to, not because they love it, as they love Reddit.

There are numerous consequences, not all intended, not all good, to using fee for service as a default model on the web. Many users would abandon services that weren’t worth paying for—we’d see usage numbers for sites shrink as well as growing inexorably. Most sites would have much smaller userbases. This likely means we’d have a harder time finding our exes on Facebook, but might mean we’d see more competition, less centralization and more competitive innovation.

If we want to build a web that’s really global, we need to rethink online payment systems. Visa and Mastercard may never become pervasive in India and sub-Saharan Africa as mobile money already has a strong market share. Still, systems like M-Pesa suffer the same problems as credit cards and PayPal: high transaction costs. The model Ted Nelson dreamed of with Xanadu, where hyperlinks would ensure authors were cited and compensated for their work, required a micropayment system with low transaction costs.

We may be nearing such a system with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that permit transactions with extremely low transaction costs. (In theory. In practice, Bitcoin transaction costs are currently still a significant fraction of a dollar.) Projects like Stellar are focused on mainstreaming cryptocurrency and ensuring these systems aren’t open only to the digerati. If Stellar takes off (a big if) and if transaction costs drop low enough (a very big if), we might see an Internet supported on micropayments of a fraction of a cent to compensate the operators of services or creators of content. This sort of architecture might provide a viable alternative to advertising for new businesses starting online. (Consider Jeremy Rubin’s Tidbit project, which quickly ran into legal trouble—viewers of a webpage would pay a micropayment through giving cycles of their computer’s CPU to mine Bitcoins as a way of paying the page’s owner.)

There is no single “right answer” to the question of how we pay for the tool that lets us share knowledge, opinions, ideas, and photos of cute cats. Whether we embrace micropayments, membership, crowdfunding, or any other model, there are bound to be unintended consequences.

But 20 years in to the ad-supported web, we can see that our current model is bad, broken, and corrosive. It’s time to start paying for privacy, to support services we love, and to abandon those that are free, but sell us—the users and our attention—as the product.

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Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab. He is the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, published by W. W. Norton in June 2013.

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