Arnold Kling

Micropayments' Great Champion

Arnold Kling, Great Questions of Economics
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Jakob Nielsen is patting himself on the back for predicting that the phenomenon of users paying for content would increase in 2001, with the give-away model and the advertising model declining. However, in my opinion Nielsen had a bad year, because he remains the last champion of micropayments, an idea that Clay Shirky demolished by pointing out that it flounders on the shoals of "mental transaction costs."

In response to Shirky, Nielsen now writes that

A true micropayment system would operate invisibly...the browser will have to display a warning, and users can set their individual threshold for the amount of money they feel comfortable spending without an explicit confirmation.

Excuse me? You are going to save me the trouble of having to decide whether content is worth paying for by invisibly adding charges to my bill, as long as those charges are below a certain threshold? That's a comforting thought. What about the cost to me of auditing that bill every month?

I agree with Nielsen that the current subscription models, which are patterned after the dead-trees world of one subscription per publication, are annoying. You want to be able to read articles in different newspapers without incurring "roaming charges." However, I believe that the solution is subscription networks, where a flat rate can give you access to a variety of content. Maybe you can start that micropayment meter running after I've used up my allotment of "free" service on a flat-rate subscription network. But I'd probably just prefer to pay a higher flat rate for a "premium plan."

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