micropaymentMicropayment for on-line content is one of those ideas that sounds great until someone actually tries implementing it. For some reason, it never ends up taking off, but every few years its siren call entices another generation of web content developers who are absolutely positive that this time it’s going to work.

Publishing Perspectives has a piece by writer and editor Amanda DeMarco that’s a great example. Calling it “an elegant solution to a widely acknowledged cultural problem” that “we all ignored”, she suggests that it might actually work this time—not as the cure-all panacea that some have made of them in the past, but as a useful tool for getting content creators paid.

DeMarco discusses the payment systems Kachingle and Flattr, which are intended for use as voluntary-payment tip jars on web sites. She notes that they haven’t really taken off yet, and they’re not likely to “support entire industries”, but they could be useful. In Germany, where DeMarco lives, they are seeing use among the tech community, or with the aid of extensive promotional campaigns (as in the case of the newspaper TAZ). When DeMarco tried it out on her own website, with an article about micropayments, she got 12 micropayments—3/4 of which were from micropayment system employees.

So why am I still supporting this idea? Well, I live in Germany, a country where discussions about reimbursing creators for digitally-accessed work reach stages they never would in the US, and where Flattr has found its greatest success. I’m often reminded of voluntary micropayments’ promise. I am convinced that wider audiences could be socialized to micropayment systems as programming communities do, and that if TAZ can successfully utilize them in Germany, then other organizations can utilize them elsewhere.

It’s certainly a nice idea, but I’m not convinced. The current crop of micropayment systems are a little complex, and don’t make the same intuitive sense that “pay someone $1, get e-book” does. They involve contributing a set amount per month, then splitting that amount up among all the websites you visit that take those micropayments. Admittedly, that does solve the concern people have had about previous micropayment systems of getting nickel-and-dimed to death by putting an upper monthly bound on their contributions, but it’s still pretty complex for a significant portion of the American public to grasp. (I spend my days helping people figure out how to work their TVs and Blu-Ray players, and as a result my estimation of the mental acuity of the average person has taken a nosedive lately.)

But perhaps sooner or later someone will figure out how to convince people to use this sort of payment system. Perhaps it will solve a lot of the problems inherent in paying for content. I will look forward to seeing if this ever happens, but I won’t be holding my breath.


  1. Hi Chris, Thanks for helping to raise the visibility of social payments. The big shift is that these voluntary contributions are user-centric, not producer-centric. With our “Kachingle Anything” capability anyone can add anything to Kachingle. So the user gets immediate satisfaction by supporting the digital stuff they love. Producers will only get satisfaction when there are millions of users, which will take some time. TeleRead profile on Kachingle: http://kachingle.com/m/3039 Kachingle Anything: http://kachingle.com/kachingle_anything.php Cynthia Typaldos Founder, Kachingle cynthia@kachingle.com

  2. I like the idea of micropayments for content; however one worry I have, is that reading could become like a rollercoaster ride. I am not, nor will I ever be, willing to have an automatic micropayment charged to any content I have *every time I open or use it*. I’m afraid I see this as the logical next big idea that some idiot at a publishing house will decide will make them a zillion dollars. The law of unforeseen consequences. Or something. The idiots at HarperCollins have taken a clear step in this direction with the ’26 checkouts, then re-buy’ rule. Like everyone who checks out a book actually opens it. Like a book should be purchased afresh every semester if it happens to be assigned for a class. Honestly those guys should be wearing helmets so they don’t hurt themselves. Anyway. Nothing in principle against the micropayment concept for one-time purchases. I just worry about the path it puts us on.

  3. Readability (excellent no-distraction webpage etc. read-now-or-later tool on multiple platforms) invites a $5/month subscription to support good writing online. Each site you read-now-or-later with Readability gets a proportion of your $5. I like it. There’s a single charge each month (done through Amazon), and I’m supporting my favourite sites and new ones I discover. 🙂

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