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Home >Opinion >Columns >Micropayments for web content: An idea whose time has come

There was a time before search engines and social media, when we had to actually type out URLs to navigate the internet. In those days, spelling mistakes would land you in little hypertext dead-ends—pages cryptically titled “404 Error: Page Not Found", which told you that even though you were connected to the correct server, it had no page corresponding to what you had keyed in. Standard response codes like this are part of the internet’s core design. A “401: Unauthorised" page says you need the right authentication to proceed, while a “403: Forbidden" page indicates that access to that page online has been disallowed.

Today, web services are so well designed that whole generations of internet users have never seen a standard response code. However, there is one such code that even old-timers have never come across—one that referred to a core feature of the internet that has still not been built.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, and Marc Andreessen, inventor of the first browser, believed that it was essential that the world wide web enabled micropayments that would authorize access to individual pages on the payment of a small fee. The 402 Error page was supposed to indicate that the page you were trying to access required a payment. Bankers, however, dragged their feet on this feature, and, as a result, even though the error message is hard-coded into the core design of the internet, micropayments for page views remain a feature “reserved for the future".

As we all know, the internet went on to become the most efficient content distribution technology ever invented. Creators amassed vast audiences that voraciously gobbled up all they were served, and as these audiences grew, the lack of monetization began to chafe. Creators were putting a lot of effort into generating content, but couldn’t benefit from the eyeballs they were attracting. It was in response to this problem that the online advertising industry was born.

Regular readers of this column will attest that I am not a huge fan of monetizing content through advertising. When creators are rewarded solely for the audience size their content gets, they are incentivized to produce material that appeals to the basest of human instincts—that we are shocked and outraged by. The real-time feedback that online advertising provides skews incentives even more, pushing content creators to disregard their creative instincts in favour of material that attracts the most eyeballs or has more stickiness. This is why so much online content appeals to our prurient tastes and is designed to address increasingly narrow and controversial viewpoints. And has lead to the creation of echo chambers and intolerance bubbles online.

In recent years, subscription has become a fashionable alternative. Most newspapers have erected paywalls to ensure that their content is only accessible to those who have paid for it.

Newsletters such as Substack and Revue have enabled independent writers to set up tiers, with exclusive content available to paying subscribers. Platforms like Patreon offer similar services to artists across a wide range of creative categories—podcasts, music and film—enabling them to create exclusive content for fans who are willing to pay an annual fee.

All these platforms give creators greater commercial control over their output, allowing them to get paid for future content that they create, rather than forcing them to shape their output based on what advertisers dictate. And because even a relatively small online audience can generate fairly substantial revenues, this is a sustainable option for even the most niche content.

I liked this model so much that in a recent article I argued it was the business model for the internet of the future. I was convinced that the direct connection this facilitates between artists and their audiences was exactly the sort of counterpoint we need against the harms of online advertising.

However, as I started to sign up for more and more ‘subscriber only’ content, I began to realize that this model limited me to content from creators I pay for. Since there is only so much paid content any one person can consume, this meant that I was missing out on creators I didn’t like enough to go for an annual subscription but whose content I nevertheless might have liked to consume every now and then.

What I now recognize is that the internet needs a micropayments solution for specific separate blocks of content. Rather than subscribing to a year’s worth of writing by my favourite writers, I should be able to pay them a small amount for a single article of theirs that I pick—a payment so small that I wouldn’t think twice before making it, but when scaled to the size of a larger audience that the internet can deliver, would be enough for artists to live off.

This is actually the model that services like Blendle have been looking to create. The arrangement they have with the hundreds of newspapers and magazines they have signed on allows users to make micropayments for individual articles without forcing them to pay for a whole issue. It is easy to see how this model can be deployed across a wide range of content categories—and how artists and fans alike could benefit from its success.

This was how the internet was supposed to work—why the 402 error page was part of the core design of the internet in the first place. Perhaps the time has finally come for us to turn the original vision of its designers into a reality.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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