Get what you pay for: reprint

(I’m on a brief vacation and reposted this entry in advance from my archive. Tom)

Wednesday I discussed a report on paid content. Thursday I offered a glimpse of (some of?) the vendors trying to popularize micropayments. Today I will summarize the debate that’s rippled through the blogosphere about whether or not micropayments will catch on this time — my own wishful-thinking take being they must and therefore I hope they will.

Author, adjunct professor and entrepreneur Clay Shirky articulated the nay side of the micropayment debate in an essay entitled Fame vs. Fortune. He says creative people crave attention so much that they will use the cheap tools for global self-expression and pump out so much free content that giveaway sites will crush any that attempt to charge even fractional amounts. He likens the preferences for different content to the choice between Coke or Pepsi, saying: “If Instapundit and Samizdata are both equally easy to get to, the relative traffic to the sites will always match audience preference. But were Instapundit to become less easy to get to (by creating even the slight barrier of micropayment) Samizdata would become a more palatable substitute.

Comic book artist and online business innovator Scott McCloud retorted with a posting entitled Misunderstanding Micropayments. He rejected Shirky’s Coke-Pepsi suggestion, arguing that content was not a fungible commodity. He used the example of paid music downloads to show that Web consumers are already willing to pay for what they want. “If you want Hail to the Thief and the whole album could be downloaded for $5.99, what difference would it make that there’s a free album from Hootie and the Blowfish somewhere else.

Shirky’s attack was four printed pages (my middle-aged eyes prefer hard copy) and McCloud’s riposte more than twice as long. So realize that I am cutting to the quick when I side with McCloud, while freely admitting that I can only hope Shirky is wrong. Because if he’s right, then Web publishing will remain the hobby of PWDJs (people with day jobs). I think it can and must become more, but the proof is in performance and not in the volume of words. In any event I must finish this post and get to work to earn the macropayment (plus health plan and other bennies) that allows me to share my thoughts so freely with those who have neither solicited them, nor may even care.