Paying attention

Taken from A Reconstruction of the Temple of Antonious and Faustina (above) and a View of the Ruins (below) by Jan Goeree (before 1704)
Taken from A Reconstruction of the Temple of Antonious and Faustina (above) and a View of the Ruins (below) by Jan Goeree (before 1704)

The ‘like’ button enjoys near-ubiquity in the contemporary web experience as a signal of approval or solidarity. The effect of likes in the aggregate have been net-negative: encouraging a state of persistent distraction, and skewing attention and power towards evermore polarising content.

There is something ingenious about the ‘like’ button, in that users get it. It’s an opportunity to fulfil a deeply-held desire to show empathy; to signal a reaction. For something not thought through in great detail, it’s very clever.

But, consider an alternative reality. Imagine how things might have been if, instead of the like button, someone had implemented another simple, easy-to-grasp function: the ’tip’ button. This exists now in various forms, but imagine an implementation circa 2007, instead of liking or starring, that went on to become ubiquitous. What might that have done for the creator economy? And would cryptobullshit ever have taken hold?

Whereas the ‘poke’ button (an early function of Facebook that sent a simple notification to someone) was ambiguous, the ‘like’ button on individual items of content gave users much clearer direction. What it didn’t do is provide any value: just a slight dopamine hit. With no other tangible benefit, the act of getting ‘likes’ as some benchmark of popularity had become an end in itself. The web experience is the poorer for it, but it has persisted so long that not many of us remember the web before.

While the ‘like’ button has been transformative, a ‘tip’ button would have set in train a cascade of interesting, independent movements. What’s important here is to get the conceptual scale right: I’m talking talking cents rather than dollars; pennies rather than pounds. Perhaps even fractions thereof. This approach would’ve encouraged users to be more discerning, while also offering the independent web a revenue opportunity not dependent on advertising.

But this didn’t happen so, you might wonder, what is there to be gained from pondering it? Because even if micropayments didn’t have their day back then, they may still.

On the internet, there are basically three kinds of price. There are the individual items you buy plus $5 shipping, there are things you subscribe to at around $12 a month, and then there’s things that are free at the point of use. Many exceptions exist, but let’s start here. If you take on too many of those $12/month subscriptions, things start to feel expensive. What’s more, as times get harder for people, subscriptions are a wise and easy thing to cut.

That leaves things people don’t pay to use, like Instagram, and things they have shipped to them: neither are particularly well-suited to the long tail of content that the early web offered so well, and could again.

Also consider paywalls: a product of necessity for traditional media’s stay of execution in the online era. But they don’t work, not really. What paywalls do is create a threshold for accessing individual content to those sufficiently invested in accessing all the content, probably for $12/month; a subscription likely challenged as living costs increase. Meanwhile most people, the overwhelming majority of those who hit the paywall, won’t be able to justify that anyway. Yet there’s no means by which they could chip a few bob into the jar just for whatever it was caught their interest before they hit the wall. Even if the publisher were to adopt one of the contemporary tip-style mechanisms, it’d be too expensive and cumbersome for users.

Another way is possible: the ‘like’ button of payment. Rather than being put off by a subscription that’s disproportionate to whatever interested them, users are free to scatter minute tokens of appreciation around the web as they please—the kind of appreciation you can take to the bank. Making it work means disrupting the maxim of taking three or four steps to set up a credit-card transaction. The web—mainstream and independent alike—is crying out for a means of bunging a penny into the jar as easily as clicking ‘like’.

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