One of the big recurring problems of the web is - who will pay for its content.
If you think that the web is doing just fine on unpaid-for amateur contributions then pass on by as you just won't get any of the rest of this discussion.
If you think that much of the content that used to be, and in fewer and fewer cases still is, published in paper format needs to make its way onto the web then the issue of micropayments always has been important.
The problem is that no-one using the web wants to pay for what they access. Free is good.
However, a lot of the content is created by people who want to make some money so that they can either spend more time working on what they enjoy or simply so that they can spend it.
So far attempts to "monetize" web content effectively have more or less failed. Subscription services are treated with a great deal of suspicion to the point where, while most people would pay for a newspaper or a magazine, few would do the same for an equivalent web service.
The solution we have all been looking for is micropayments. Some way of making a quick and painless payment of a very small amount to read a very small amount of copy - minimum risk and a cost so low that you wouldn't hesitate if there was a chance that what you were about to read was good.
People have tried to invent micropayments before and they are trying again. Flattr, and it's a good choice of name, is a new web site set up by one of the founders of Pirate Bay. It is designed to allow users to flatter any web site they like with a gift of - a very small amount of money. The idea is that the user signs up and pays an amount into an account each month. Then as they browse the web they can click Flattr buttons to give a website a thumbs up. It is a sort of "like" button but with a reward of money. The number of Flattrs is counted up and displayed like any social bookmarking site. Indeed, the main Flattr site displays a list of most popular articles just like Digg or Delicious.
What does Flattr get out of it?
10%, of course.
So is it going to work?
Not a chance.
There have already been a number of similar schemes and they have all failed - some quite recently. TipJoy for example, tried to wrap up the payment idea in the more psychologically appealing idea of a tip. It didn't work.
My best guess as to the reason Flattr and similar ideas don't work is simply that the lump sum payment that is involved in setting up or running the account is as painful and as risk-laden as an upfront subscription to an online web site.
There are a few facts of life that micropayment schemes such as Flattr simply don't overcome.
- Currently users expect free content and are happy to browse many pages of low quality content in the hope of finding something good. Search engines encourage this behavior.
- Users even complain about having advertising on a page and there is a big resistance to clicking banner ads even if the topic is of interest.
- Commercial activity of any kind on a web site is also viewed as bad and somehow immoral - getting between them and the content rather than helping to pay for the content.
Put simply the psychology is all wrong.
Given that users are hostile to the one form of micropayments that doesn't cost them a cent, i.e. advertising, you can hardly expect a scheme that involves paying upfront for content is going to work. Users can get to read what they might Flattr for free
I hope Flattr works because currently there is no way that the web can support startups hoping to create high quality content via its sole monetization process - advertising.