In my opinion, the internet is the greatest invention of the last 50 years. It has provided everybody with nearly unlimited access to free information and it is pretty hard for me to make the case that the internet hasn’t benefited me far more than I have ever paid for its services. Without the internet, I would very likely have learned nothing about the philosophies I present to you. Without the internet, research is extremely hard. You need access to linked university libraries. I still remember trying to find astrophysical journal articles using the telnet library catalog in the early 90s. Curses! What a drag it was. Today, I can use google to find the same information and so much more, instantly, without leaving my chair.

Of course, information needs to be created. This requires effort. A lot of effort. I’m a good enough writer that I can spew out a 400 word content-less junk article in 15 minutes flat—the kind that advertisers call “high quality relevant content” that nobody cares to read. The _thinking_ required to generate new insights and the kind of research required (I read a ton of stuff) is VERY hard and takes much more energy and preparation. (This is why there aren’t a million ERE blogs.)

One of the emergent and unforeseen problems of the free information society is that we have no good way of compensating the content makers, as discussed in the forum thread.

The current method which is based on more of an industrial method of thinking does not optimize the quality of the writing of the web.

The reason is that selling content on the web simply doesn’t work very well. Subscriptions don’t work because people will settle for one of the free sites. Memberships don’t work for the same reason. Advertising works for some sites but if you’re less than naive, you know how SEO and writing for the lowest common denominator brings in a lot more revenue than a site that focuses on quality content. It also means that some sites, e.g. those who are dedicated to people who are willing to pay $150 for a class in how to get out of debt or $1000 for a 1 day seminar in how to get free airline miles are going to have a much easier time monetizing their content than sites dedicated to DIY composting even though the latter does more for the world than the former. Consequentially, there are a lot more sites oriented towards consumerist topics than anything else.

Furthermore, advertising often means that the author’s interests are more aligned with the advertisers than his readers. Affiliate marketing is probably the worst example of this. Have you noticed how lifestyle bloggers tend to LOOOOOVE each others ebooks? Oh, and by the way they also get 51% in commission of each sale bought through their affiliate link… but they still LOOOOOVE each others ebooks in a completely unbiased manner. Yeah, sure.

A more common example is advertisers paying bloggers to insert sneaky links into their content for their various credit card companies, payday loan companies, and credit consolidations. Obviously readers don’t like to be fooled. It also gives the blogger a moral dilemma: “Do I want to make money and piss off my readers OR do I want to keep my readers, who also get pissed off if I ask them to pay for my content, happy => I make nothing.” I recently turned down $125 while at the same time listening to people who would a) rather see less advertising; and b) not pay $1/month for content that saves them hundreds of dollars per month. Consequently, a lot of content is written out of love, but it’s hard to love writing under such demanding conditions.

One thing I’ve done myself is to implement a form of Gresham’s law. Gresham’s law says that bad money drives out the good money. To wit, if a government institutes paper money, it will quickly replace silver money as people hoard their silver and try to get rid of their paper. Since paying for books are a generally accepted way of compensating the researcher/writer and paying for web-content is not, I have kept my best ideas for my book projects. Essentially, Gresham’s law of content says that good content gets driven into venues that does get compensated (like I reserve my best ideas for my books) and replace it with more fluffy content.

In the forum thread above we tried suggesting different ideas, like paying 1 cent for each page view (in which case reading through the entire ERE blog would cost something like $10) or charging $1/hour for online time. This turned out to be like pulling teeth. Apparently 1 cent is faaaaaaaar too much to pay for a good articles. I’d estimate that 1 cent scheme for each page view during my personal browsing (I practically live on the internet) would cost me something like $100 more per month in internet costs. This would be worth it to me. The information I get from this would certainly be worth it although I would stay more away from some sites and be more selective—which is a good thing.

So that wasn’t the solution either. People have simply come to expect that it’s natural to pay a lawyer $500 for a five minute opinion, whereas it’s abhorrent to pay a blogger 1 cent for a half hour article even though the mental effort is the same. It is what it is. Supply, demand, and tradition.

I’m partially being whiny on my own behalf here, but I also know that it’s a general problem for the amateur blogging community in general—those who write for the love of it and haven’t sold out being willing to hype most anything to get their commission. We frequently run on “reader appreciation”. Getting nasty comments or being told that the content someone just spent 10 hours reading isn’t worth a buck can ruin the day. Some people stop blogging entirely. I think this is a great loss in terms of the overall quality of the web. If the natural evolution is toward content-less articles full of keywords intended to drive traffic and everybody else gives up in disgust, where will we eventually be? The internet will start looking like commercial TV.

Now, I understanding that maybe some articles really aren’t worth 1 cent and maybe $10 is a hefty sum for a one time donation. I certainly believe that about many websites and if they required upfront payment, maybe I wouldn’t take a chance on them in the first place. I can also see the cultural expectation of free content. Furthermore as witnessed by the forum thread, we were kind of at a loss as to how to implement some system where people who provided quality content would somehow get rewarded which at the same time wouldn’t be easily gamed by SEO, paid keyword placement, and other tricks.

So I’ve been quite excited today when Paul Wheaton uncovered a model which just might work—at least better than any other model I can think of. It’s called TipTheWeb.

First, it’s really easy to sign up (using your facebook, google, twitter, or yahoo one-click sign in). Second, it doesn’t require any upfront donation. Third, and perhaps most importantly, you can tip any website—they don’t have to be members. Fourth, you can tip any amount from a nickel (5 cents) and up using a button from the menubar (Drag and drop installing).

This is seriously powerful combination. It’s easy and universal in use and you don’t have to worry about accidentally donating hundreds of dollars.

The way it works is that after reading something on the web that you liked, you click the button in the menu bar. This creates an instant popup and then you click 5 cents, say.

Those 5 cents will then register as an unfunded donation on your account to the owner of the URL you clicked on. Then after you’ve tipped 25 websites or 25 webpages/articles you’ve read around the web, corresponding to $1.25, you go into the site and transfer maybe $1.00. TipTheWeb’s software then distributes your $1.00 out to your unfunded donations and turn them into funded donations after which the tipped people receive their tips—they don’t get anything before you actually pay into your account. Thus the URL owners now get their 5 cents from you. You now have $0.25 in unfunded donations. This is to explain that you don’t have to go through the hassle of whipping out the credit card or paypal account information each time you want to donate a nickel, a quarter or a buck. You can tip in advance and then decide when and how much to pay later. It’s extremely easy.

Furthermore, the amount is small. A great deal of sites aren’t worth $10 to me, but a great deal of sites ARE worth a nickel. A nickel is not a lot of money.

However, receiving a nickel provides a quantum of happiness that means more than “thank you, great post” in the comments. It means that readers think your content is worth something. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s 5 cents of $25 dollars. It’s the action that counts. Just like tipping your waiter at a restaurant, there’s a world of difference between saying “nice job” on the way out of the door and leaving an actual tip.

I agree with the sentiment that it would be a more awesome feeling to get one nickel donated from 400 persons (for a total of $20) than to get $20 from one person. The money is not important—it is the number of appreciative people.

The way I see it is that with $10 and giving the minimum tip of 5 cents, I can give 200 jolts of happiness. I can give it 200 different people or maybe if someone was really good, I can give one for each of the great articles a single person writes (the tip is associated with the URL and the recipient can see what’s getting tipped). These jolts might just encourage a quality writer to keep writing instead of saying “this is just not worth it anymore, nobody appreciates what I’m doing compared to how much effort I put in” (<=- I'm sometimes close to this stage, especially when I get nasty comments offsite about how much my life must suck) or simply selling out and start writing commercial quality stuff (<=- I doubt I could live with myself doing this).

So I signed up for the tip website and I’m going to start handing out nickels. Make people happy. I think I have a backlist of people I owe but was too lazy to tip at the time(*). Sometimes I also hold back because while I would like to give something, I think that $3 would be seen as too miserly or I simply don’t know what’s expected. On the other hand, if a nickel—something that many people won’t even bother to pick up from the street—was the standard amount, they would sit very loose.

(*) Often the problem is that it’s too easy not to tip. If you were a faceless customer in a restaurant and could beam out after you got served, would you tip? I don’t think many would. It’s too easy to read a web page and think, okay, this was great, but why bother giving back when it’s so easy not to. I think having the tip button in the menu bar makes it easy enough not to. It literally takes 2 seconds to tip a URL, no exaggeration.

So I’m hoping that this system will become sufficiently widespread to eliminate all the bad forms of monetization that we currently have to suffer through and replace them with systems where good content creators get more appreciated for their efforts. In my case, if just 3% of everybody who read one of my articles liked it enough to donate a nickel, I would kick out all my ads. However, personally, I’m just going to enjoy giving back and paying it forward on my favorite sites and any good stuff I come across.


Update: I put a tip button at the top of the page under the post title even though you don’t really need one. It’s more convenient to go to TipTheWeb.org and drag the Tip It! button onto your toolbar. I’ve funded my account with $5.00 and intend to tip at the nickel level but do it often. This should make for 100 tips. You can see the tips, I’ve given on my tip stream.