Just as the advent of the personal computer heralded the end of the era of the typewriter, so too did the adoption of a global internet spell doom for print media. Of course, tablets and ebooks did their fair share of damage to paper-based information, as well. But regardless, the paradigm shift is in process: newspapers are closing around the globe, and media companies are struggling to find revenue models that work. With the advent of cryptcurrencies, however, micropayments have become a reality — and it’s starting to become clear that Bitcoin can save publishing. I remember a time when entertainment and news came only from a handful of sources: three television networks, radio, newspapers, movies, or books. But those days are long gone, and today the competition for human attention has reached a fevered pitch: blogs, YouTube, Hulu, NetFlix, Facebook, Twitter… the list goes on, and it is incomprehensibly long. Viewed from one perspective, this sea of information seems like a boon; who can refute the notion that the explosion of available knowledge in the last two decades is anything but beneficial to humankind?
But then there’s the other edge of this proverbial sword: the daily deluge of potential knowledge, along with a relatively poor set of tools with which to navigate this glut of information. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the era of oligopolistic media dissemination was a good thing, but viewed from the perspective of “media overload,” at least it was easier to identify and share higher-quality information back then– even if “higher-quality” was limited to the rare likes of Carl Sagan and Walter Cronkite.
Today, in contrast, anyone with a keyboard and an electrical outlet can record, film, produce, edit, or publish — everything from blogs, to magazines, to books, to albums, to full-length movies (even someone like me can pump out copious drivel!). And most of it is free — thus explaining the revenue problems traditional content-producers face.
But what if there were another way? Imagine a model that not only solves these revenue problems, but also provides a sort of attendant, emergent “filter” that helps audiences more easily find quality information without having to swim through morass.
Before we move on, I should say nothing is going to save print media. The number of people requiring the presence of a physical newspaper or book in their clutches is diminishing quickly. For so many reasons, I believe that is a good thing, and I am not suggesting some sort of Luddite regression from digital distribution. Killing trees is not cool when a cheaper, easier alternative abounds.
Many newspapers and other outlets have tried to switch to an online subscription model — in order to supplement diminishing advertising revenue. Examples include the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Financial Times. Unfortunately for these companies, however, they’re not having much success with the campaign. And why would they? Who wants to pay $50 or $100 (or more) a year to get news that is free from so many other sources?
What if, however, these companies could charge, per article? I’m not talking about five dollars — or even one dollar. What if they could charge something like one to five cents per article?*
It’s a great idea; I would be much more willing to drop a penny on a Wall Street Journal article than go through the hassle of digging around the globe for another source — probably with far less credibility. If such a system were easy and universal, I think a lot of consumers would sponsor media-outlets on a per-unit basis. Some companies have tried creating accounts — and issuing credit — but again this has had very little success; if you dump some cash in one outlet, it doesn’t transfer to another one.
And this illustrates the real problem: micropayments like these have not been easy and universal — until now. Essentially, the only way to pay for online services until recently was by using credit cards. And since they typically charge up to 3% per transaction, this really created a huge impediment for the types of small transactions we’re discussing.
The only two drawbacks I can think of to using cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are ease-of-use and security. But Digital currency wallets and applications are becoming safer, more reliable, and easier to use by the day. It’s only a matter of time before there’s some sort of Firefox or Chrome plugin that allows you charge it up with $50 worth of Bitcoin, and make small payments to any number of online merchants. The reason Bitcoin works where credit cards did not is that it makes the transactions free… no more 3% charge!
Apparently, I’m not the first person to see the benefits Bitcoin might have in some of these industries: recently The Chicago Sun-Times announced it would begin accepting Bitcoin. Just think… in the not-too-distant future, you could be clicking one button and giving your favorite news source a penny for their troubles. That certainly doesn’t break the bank, and I’m going to go out on a limb here to suggest most of us are going to feel pretty good about paying such a small amount for quality content.
But maybe the best part of all this is that this content will finally have the opportunity to start being rewarded again — directly by its users. And this will serve as a filter for better sites… they will generate more revenue and continue to produce better material. Meanwhile, lower-quality sites will either have to continue to produce for less money (and presumably, to a shrinking audience), or give up the game altogether.
You gotta love the free market. I just hope I’m not putting myself out of a job.