The argument that kills any monetisation discussion

When I was going through Stephanie Rieger’s presentation about regulation for the web, I had an idea: what if we forced people to pay for social media use?

Today I’d like to discuss not that idea but a counterargument leveled against it: What about people who cannot afford to pay for social media? Wouldn’t they be left behind? This observation turns up sooner or later in any monetisation discussion.

I have a problem with this argument.

Killing the discussion

My problem is not that it’s untrue — I wish it were; that would make any monetisation discussion a lot easier.

My problem is that it effectively kills the discussion.

Giving in to this argument raises the interests of people who are unable to pay to the top of our priority list, trumping the interests of other constituencies, notably content creators. If we accept this argument in full, we are effectively unable to make any further progress — or so it seems to me.

The current system of giving away everything for free benefits people who are unable to pay. That is a good feature, but I feel that the fact that a system has a good feature does not mean we should accept all of the bad ones.

In order to change the status quo we have to temporarily ignore the interests of people who are unable to pay. Considering them, and drawing up plans in case of a (so-far hypothetical) victory of sane monetisation is fine. Killing the discussion in their name is not.

That’s why in the future I am going to respectfully reject this argument while acknowledging it is true. The fact that some people are not able to pay for monetisation scheme X is a problem to be solved, but it is not a reason to reject scheme X.

Paying for access

Assume for a moment that sites like this, or, much more importantly, MDN, require payment, or at least that there is strong social pressure to pay for usage. Some people are unable to do so. How should we solve that problem?

To me, the answer is obvious: create a sort of fund that buys subscriptions wholesale (with a bit of bulk discount?) and dontes them to affected people.

I don’t know a lot about such funds, but I do have ample experience with diversity tickets for conferences, which is a somewhat-comparable use case. In our experience, gathering the money to pay for a few diversity tickets is no problem. Companies will chip in, some speaker will waive their fees, or sometimes even their travel budgets, we’ll give a discount and add one or two free tickets, and before we know it we have enough budget for about ten diversity tickets.

Access costs less money per person than a diversity ticket, although we need many more units. That’s why I am assuming that acquiring the budget to pay for access for even a few hundred people is quite possible, although it may take some time.

Selection

The problem lies in the selection. Who exactly should receive support from this fund?

This is usually the bottleneck for our diversity tickets, because we decided long ago that we ourselves are not going to take that decision. We used to use a service that made a selection for us, but even before the Corona crisis broke they decided to cease their selection service. That leaves ... nothing, as far as we know.

A hypothetical system that pays for access to content would run into the same problem. Who deserves such support? Who decides who deserves such support? Somebody will have to take decisions here, will have to — dare I say it? — keep the gate.

But who? To me, this is the crucial question. I have no easy answer.

If you have an answer please share it. Note, however, that I’m looking for something structural, something that can stay in place for years and years to come. Right now I’m not interested in temporary solutions.

Or do we want to keep the current system in place so that we don’t have to answer this question?

Or am I worrying too much and will the situation sort-of solve itself? Am I maybe erecting a straw-man argument? I just don’t know right now.

***

As to my original idea of paying for social media usage, feel free to think about it, ask hard questions like Dean Bubley did, and mull it over in your head, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that it’s too complicated to actually execute.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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