Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

I was a little saddened, though not surprised, when I logged on to Plastic.com the other day and saw a button asking me to “donate here.”

Plastic, a community Weblog of user-provided links, is the lone and precarious survivor of the massacre that last month saw the shutdown of sibling sites Feed and the venerable Suck. Unable, like virtually all content sites these days, to support itself through conventional media revenue streams, Plastic now has resorted to begging—not to put too fine a point on it—to stay alive. We have seen the newest twist in new media, and it looks like public television.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a supporter of public TV and radio, and have the T-shirts and tote bags to prove it. I gave money to Plastic, too. Yet if we needed any more proof of the broken commercial promise of the Internet—and after the collapse of online grocer Webvan last week, we really don’t—a respected, even loved content provider reduced to busking on a cyber street corner provides it. All that’s needed now is a sign that says, “Will publish for food.”

Plastic is not alone. Cyberspace is teeming with Weblogs—individually produced sites with daily musings and links to the far corners of the Web. “Donate here” buttons are proliferating, too. For many passionate users, the Web would be a far more impenetrable and dull place without their favorite Weblogs’ idiosyncratic guidance. Giving donations or “tips” (the preferred term, as it sounds more merit-based) lets visitors show their appreciation for sites that have survived on love and ego alone. Will reader sponsorship keep the Net from becoming all AOL all the time?

Credit for this method of passing the hat goes to software that facilitates the transfer of small amounts of money between individuals. A site can now link to Amazon.com, where, with a couple of clicks, a user can contribute by credit card as little as $1 to a site’s cause. Paypal, a self-rating network of buyers and sellers on the eBay model, offers the same service and, like Amazon, collects a percentage of every transaction.

Thus, begging for spare change in cyberspace has become simple and convenient. Anybody can do it. And judging from a partial list of Amazon Honors System clients, anybody is—including, in an almost cruel irony, AllFree.com, a provider of links to the fast-dwindling sources of free goods and services on the Net.

The sobering truth is that, despite the promises of now-bankrupt companies, nothing on the Web comes free—not even Web logs leading to free stuff. Virtual tips are a sign that consumers are acknowledging that—but, as always, on their own terms. They also cast doubt on the truism that consumers won’t pay for content on the Web, particularly for something they already experience as engaging and useful.

OK, so only a fraction of regular visitors to a site are giving, and they aren’t giving much. Relying on the kindness of strangers is not a business plan. No one should quit his day job, nor should we expect Weblog IPOs in the foreseeable future.

Yet in a profession as low-paying as freelance journalism, a one-person, reader-sponsored Web site can make economic sense, which is more than we can say for the Web-only Inside.com. Tips may be chump change to a VC. But rare is the ink-stained wretch who wouldn’t welcome an extra four figures of income for the priceless pleasure of writing whatever he or she wants. All it takes is providing content that users value enough to pay to keep alive.

The New York Times reported that Andrew Sullivan’s Weblog raked in $25,000 in the last year (though he doesn’t take a salary—yet). Little wonder: The tip icon is the most prominent graphic on andrewsullivan.com. Click it and you get a fund-raising pitch worthy of a public TV beg-a-thon. Individual sponsors have attracted a corporate sponsor. If Salon had started so modestly, it might not be on a deathwatch today.

Dangerous as it is to predict the future of the Internet, reader sponsorship does offer a glimpse of what parts of the post-gold rush Web may be like. In an essay in Yahoo! Inter net Life, Douglas Rushkoff argues that the Net today is like an organism that has rejected a foreign body, the dot-com contagion, to reassert its true nature—as a communal, noncommercial medium. Unlike a subscription, voluntary financial support is not a business transaction. It is the token of a relationship, recalling the ethos of shareware and the days when “newbies” were indoctrinated in the give-take-give-back rules of Netiquette.

Reader sponsorship is not going to make anybody rich. But it may help the Net fulfill its promise to let a thousand flowers bloom.



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