why the penny may be more useful than you think

So as of today, the penny is dead. The CBC have posted a nice obituary, something for us to remember the little guy by. And ultimately, it’s for the best. You haven’t been able to buy anything useful with a penny for a long time, and, if some politicians get their wish, you won’t be using nickels for much longer, either.

Now, there’s an assumption in the above paragraph that passed without notice, but which is worthy of considering further. What can you buy with a penny? As it stands, right now, not much. What about with many pennies? Well, it depends how many. Facebook, it turns out, makes around two cents per user per month, after costs are taken into consideration. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering that there are somewhere in the ballpark of 300 million users on the site, it adds up. Now, I don’t want to talk too much about Facebook here- $64 million profit is a triffle (not trifle) for a company of its size.

But let’s think. Let’s imagine for a moment that there is a way to make micro payments on the internet. Let’s say it costs a tenth of a cent to open a Facebook page, a penny to post an image on reddit, maybe a nickel to read an article on the Globe and Mail. For the individual, assuming they look at Facebook three times a day, and consult an average of 20 pages per visit: we’re looking at about 6 cents a day for Facebook usage. Assuming they post five images a week to reddit, we’re looking at 5 cents. These amounts would add up, eventually, and real internet junkies may need to change their surfing habits, but ultimately we’d be looking at paying for content on the internet based entirely on what we view, and with total costs adding up to about the same amount as you pay for your physical connection. For the companies making these tiny amounts from many different users, their revenue base would explode.

There are, of course, problems. First, people aren’t used to paying for content on the internet. Would they unplug en masse? It seems unlikely, given the internet’s ubiquity- besides, it would seem well worth it to pay the equivalent of one five-hundredth of a stamp to send a message to a friend. Second, people would need to make some sort of account which is connected to their banking information, which would necessarily imply a link to their real identity. Would they stop posting upon needing to use their real name? The number of users on Facebook and Twitter using their real names would seem to be a counterpoint, and, if no-one on the internet is anonymous, it seems less likely anyone would be particularly bothered by it.

The third problem is the really interesting one. What would change in the internet’s architecture if it cost something, even something very small, to post? Because it currently costs nothing to instagram a picture of your breakfast, people do it. There is, in other words, no barrier to entry to writing on the internet, and so there is effectively no quality control. Look at this the other way: a newspaper charges readers to read it, so it must ensure a certain level of coherence with the expected standards of its target audience. A blogger, who charges nothing, has no such responsibility. Which model is better?

This is a philosophical question to which I have no answer, but whose sides I can outline. The free internet, proponents go, is necessary to ensure intellectual progress. If we put any sort of limit on how much information a user can consult or contribute, we necessarily stifle innovation. Think of the classic case of Bolivian Einstein, who can no longer spend his or her days consulting wikipedia and ehow in order to build a fusion reactor for the family farm. The profusion of poor-quality information/writing/art on the internet is a necessary side-effect of total free access: how will a bad artist get good without a forum to display her work? How can we prevent inaccurate information from being posted without sweeping up a lot of other controversial, but pertinent, content in the drag net?

The other side, the side that says the internet should cost ‘not nothing’ has ready counterarguments. The impact of a small cost is more psychological than anything: it will prevent people from aimlessly blowing time on the internet, forcing them to narrow their research and surfing to its most important functions. For some, the essential is Facebook. For others, its Wikipedia. The consumer is free to decide where to spend his penny slivers, but he should be compelled to spend them. His small contribution, along with that of hundreds of thousands of others, will ensure the viability of the websites he uses, and the armies of coders, editors, journalists, and contributors who give their lives to them. Some sort of guaranteed revenue would make it more likely that creative workers would establish their own webspaces, and take the time to make them of the highest quality.

There is a brutal market logic in this retort that is hard to deny. Newspapers have figured this out the hard way: if they have no online section, their readers go to free online sources rather than buy the paper. If they have a free online section, the user stops buying the hard copy. It is only when all of the major newspapers are behind paywalls online (as will soon be the case in Canada), and the consumer has no choice but to pay for content, that they can afford to pay their contributors and staff. Investigative journalism costs something, and who should pay but the readers?

The same logic applies to all kinds of visual and textual artists. Their work costs something to make: these people need to eat, live somewhere, get around, and even (gasp!) have some money to enjoy themselves. In the absence of a radical revamp of the grant system in Canada, the money is not going to fall from the sky, and so micro payments (that’s to say, payments of less than a nickel) would be a one possible option to ensure that they have some revenue.

And so some questions for reflection: Is total accessibility fundamental to the quality or character of the internet? Is there a way to integrate banking and payment information to an internet account while allowing the user a measure of anonymity online (like how authors use pseudonyms for their ‘pulp’ work)? What would change about our individual internet use if we were billed per page view? How would such a system be handled internationally? A nickel for your thoughts.

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