by Emily W. Sussman
In today’s depressed economy, status symbols like fancy cars and logo-embellished shirts broadcast foolishness, not prestige. It makes far more sense to spend what (little) we have on things that sustain us physically, professionally and intellectually. Right?
In theory, yes. But in real life, only my landlord and my grocery store have business models in place for collecting my dwindling dollars.
I know I’m not alone in relying on blogs like TechCrunch or EatSleepPublish to keep me up-to-date professionally, or in feeding my intellectual curiosity with the free online version of the New York Times Book Review and its kin. And while I’m grateful for the knowledge-service they provide, that’s all I can do: be (passively) grateful. The sites’ producers don’t even ask me to chip in, let alone provide a sidebar widget that would enable me to compensate them.
Which is where the elephant comes stomping into the room. As in, if I’m not paying for it — and, by extension, nobody else is either — how on earth can these enterprises keep churning out content?
But maybe I should stop overanalyzing and go with the (free) flow. In a Time cover story last week, the venerable Walter Isaacson says what most of us have been thinking for a long time: “if [even the NYT] doesn’t see fit to charge for its content, I’d feel like a fool paying for it.”
Far from lulling us into complacency, however, Isaacson’s article serves as an urgent call to arms. His point is that a free press isn’t — and moreover, shouldn’t be — literally free.
“Those who believe that all content should be free should reflect on who will open bureaus in Baghdad or be able to fly off as freelancers to report in Rwanda under such a system,” Isaacson tells the freeloading masses. He’s got tough love for the news orgs, too: “Charging for content forces discipline on journalists: they must produce things that people actually value.”
Point taken. But how will this paid-content paradigm shift come about? The categorial dissing of micropayments is still fashionable these days, but Steve Outing of Editor and Publisher isn’t throwing the baby out with the bath water. In last Tuesday’s column, Outing extolled the industry-saving potential of the California-based startup Kachingle — a system that sprinkles a user’s chunk of change over various websites in direct proportion to how much that user visits (i.e., values) those sites.
The logistics are user-friendly: someone would purchase, say, a $5 monthly Kachingle account, then go about his daily consumption of online content. Thanks to a combination of algorithms and user agency (that is, if he liked a particular site enough to click its Kachingle medallion-widget), the funds in his account would be distributed to the hard-working providers of his web diet. (See more specifics of Kachingle on Outing’s post.)
Outing pitches Kachingle as a kind of universal subscription to web content. “Just as online users currently pay… a monthly fee for all the music they want from a service like Rhapsody, they’ll also pay a monthly fee for all the news and blog content on the Web.”
I heard co-founder Cynthia Typaldos discuss Kachingle on a conference call last week, and it was hard to argue with her logic: take the “micro and mental transaction costs” out of the micropayment model, and people will be more inclined to pay for the content they value.
But here’s the (potentially) million-dollar proposition: participation in Kachingle is voluntary, and a site’s content would still be free to non-Kachinglers. (Sort of like NPR, as Outing reminds us.)
Essentially, Kachingle will enable me to thank Jason Preston of EatSleepPublish by taking him out for a (virtual) sandwich, and, while I’m at it, maybe spring for a soda for the NYT Book Review.
But is this too big a leap of faith for the Land of Free?
Well, I can concede that Preston’s got to eat in order to keep up his strength to write his blog, and that Joyce Carol Oates needs a cool drink in the midst of her doggedly prolific literary career. And when I let my dollars follow my rationale, everyone’s happy: my content providers get real-world sustenance while I get the assurance that the sites I depend on will still exist when I wake up for my fix tomorrow.
But that’s not all I get. If goodwill and reciprocity are today’s recession-era status symbols, then I’m about to flaunt my bling. I can see it now: everyone from my Facebook friends to the visitors to my personal blog doing a double take when they see I have a caring, philanthropic side — as evidenced by the fact that I carry my “Kachingling” wallet with my virtual self.
Not only that, my trail of Kachingles will help substantiate my very identity. When I Kachingle a site like EatSleepPublish, I’m providing irrefutable evidence that yes, I am someone who cares about the future of publishing in a freeloading world. Similarly, a teen who boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of celebrity gossip might want to Kachingle Perez Hilton to show her friends how she gets her scoops. (Don’t panic if you’re a closeted Perez fan: you can change the privacy settings to hide or show which sites you’ve Kachingled.)
I don’t know about Mr. Isaacson, but I’m not feeling foolish. At the very least, I’ll be off the hook when he sees me nudging — er, Kachingling— his paradigm shift along.