Brian Fuller's blog on the media, marketing and content creation

Micropayments are macro-b.s.

Posted on | September 11, 2009 | 8 Comments

The headline is amusing in and of itself:

Google Plans Tools to Help News Media Charge for Content

Miguel Helft, otherwise clear-eyed reporter for the New York Times, writes deadpan:

Google is planning to roll out a system of micropayments within the next year and hopes that newspapers will use it as they look for new ways to charge users for their content.

As the comedian says, “Really.”

This doesn’t take 1,000 words of explication.

1. This dog doesn’t hunt

2. Let’s get this straight: The company that invented how to make money on free content is now trying to help the people it’s driving out of business monetize content that’s become free? What? Google’s micropayments offer is the fox offering to help the chickens into the hen house.

3. Micropayments are bullshit. In 50 years we may live in a world in which electronics embedded in our bodies are used to charge us for toll roads, meals, cups of coffee, toll sidewalks, bus rides, interactions with clerks, and the like, but I will (I think) be dead by then and happily so. Secondly, for the love of Chris Anderson and Stewart Brand, information wants to be free.

In situations of abundance, anything that wants to be monetized needs to create scarcity. Information is free online. Instead of micropayments for stuff that people expect to be free, take it offline, make it scarce and people will pay for it if it’s deemed valuable enough. Recall that Stewart Brand’s complete observation was:

Information wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. … That tension will not go away.

Print dead? Maybe not. Until then, be wary of familiars bearing gifts.

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8 Responses to “Micropayments are macro-b.s.”

  1. Loring Wirbel
    September 12th, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    Three caveats to your otherwise spot-on observation:

    1. The National Newspaper Association of America came to Google about modifying an existing Google Checkout product, not the other way around. No surprise, NNAA desperately wants to re-visit monetization any way it can, but not Google’s fault in this case (Google IS to blame for 95 percent of the rest of the world’s problems).

    2. Micropayments may never catch on in media, but they are already widely used in Asia via NFC for just about everything, so their migration to this area will happen before you turn 60. Their use in everything from tolls to hamburgers will be commonplace within five years.

    3. It’s not just the WSJ that’s talked people into paying for online content. Publications with highly specialized content that dropped their print edition, such as Bulletin of the Atomic Schientists, have successfully moved the readership to micropayments, online subs, or some combination of the two.

    In short, micropayments, like herpes, are dreadful buggers that inevitable come around again.

  2. Andy Schlei
    September 12th, 2009 @ 2:36 pm


    I think you are right, this won’t work for content to consumers. Look at the NY Times wonderful experience with Times Select. WSJ being a real exception.

    The micropayments might work on as a means for content owners to try and get something from other sites that use the content.

    Isn’t AP after getting money even for a link to a story?

    Just a thought.


  3. Lou Covey
    September 12th, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    It will work… but not from Google. You still have to be able to control where your content goes.

  4. Loring Wirbel
    September 12th, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

    Lou, Google was making a tactical play from the desktop, and will be sideliners in micropayments. The people that own micropayments will be “trusted services managers”, which are coalitions of banks and credit brokers, working with the people providing the infrastructure for NFC. But then, they’ll all get caught trying to develop derivatives models for trusted services, and will all be marched off to jail. Until they get snapped up by larger banks. And so it goes.

  5. Brian
    September 12th, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    Loring, I actually agree. Micropayments, once we figure out a seamless way to do it, will be OK. And I don’t begrudge Google’s innovation. But I remain PO’d at the publishing industry for having its head stuck so deeply in the sand for so long and now having to come hat in hand to Google (its arch nemesis) for help.
    It’s not too late to put the content toothpaste back in the tube, but it’s damn close.

  6. Ry Schwark
    September 14th, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    When it comes to generic consumer content and news, there is too much of it. Every paper in the country seems to want to be a national daily… on top of those that really are national dailies.

    people won’t pay for what they can get for free by just browsing another site.

    You’re spot on. It’s scarcity that drives the value. If you’re one of 40 dailies posting AP feeds and your take on the latest doings in washington.

    Micropayments for generic consumer news are a fail.

  7. SiliconCowboy
    September 14th, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    Wow Brian is this a flip and a flop? I’m losing track…I thought you were a proponent of micropayments? Anyway, something game-changing is bound to happen. Look at payment systems like Boku, which charges to your cell phone bill, who would have thought of that? It will be wildly popular in half the world where subscriptions are non-existent, everything is pay-as-you-go. We’re trying to run an information economy off of an industrial-age monetary system. It simply can’t be survive unless there is a way to monetize it. Funny, the big picture: We have managed to do more with less, the result being you can get anything for free…nirvana or disaster? LOL

  8. Brian
    September 15th, 2009 @ 9:38 am

    Dan, great insights, my friend. I’m not sure I’m flipping or flopping, just emotionally reacting to Google in the context of its relationship with the mainstream media (there’s more news on this front today, which I’ll blog about later).
    I think micropayment as a technology is fantastic. I attended a panel earlier this year ( about non-profits using social media. One of the presentations talked about using the cell phone and the provider’s back-end billing system to create “text-to-give” charity programs. Very cool.
    So, bottom line is that Google is making nice, but I don’t think micropayments systems work for products the market has (for now) deemed free.

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