Imagine a small farming community living within a commons alongside a river. Money doesn’t exist in this community. Each person farms, hunts, raises cattle, bakes bread or does whatever to survive. They survive because whatever they make, they barter for other goods or services that they need.
I see the Web today as part of this vision in that each of us is providing something that benefits others. The only problem is that bartering for goods or services just doesn’t cut it in the real world today because while it is possible to barter online to a degree today, you can only go so far. At some point if you want your online work and creativity to sustain you, you need money coming from somewhere to help pay for your offline expenses (i.e. rent, food, clothing, etc). Here’s a quick example of what I mean.
YouTube is an extremely popular service. When using it, you are bartering with YouTube. You are providing interesting content on it in exchange for pretty much unlimited bandwidth and storage (i.e. hosting multiple movies). If you had to pay a hosting provider for this storage and bandwidth, you’d be spending a substantial amount of money to do this, especially if your content was extremely popular and accessed by millions. Therefore by utilizing YouTube, you are trading your interesting content in exchange for their storage and bandwidth.
YouTube isn’t the only one doing this though of course. There are lots of other services who’ve done it in the past. Back when I used to play id’s Quake a long time ago, PlanetQuake followed this same principle. They’d give you free storage and bandwidth, as long as you create a site within their network that provided interesting content. Google’s rumoured vision of the future, with unlimited bandwidth and storage to everyone, follows this same idea as well. Yet again, one critical piece of this vision is missing. While it shows that money isn’t needed to create and host content in the the online world, money is still definitely needed in our offline world (i.e. again to pay for food, clothing, shelter, etc).
Right now, I only see two ways to achieve this sustainability without ads. One approach is similar to Chris Locke’s Gonzo Marketing, where you get a patron (not a sponsor) to help fund your endeavors. The other approach is opening a tipping jar, similar to Andrew Sullivan’s tip jar, with the idea that instead of being forced to pay for something that you may not be fully aware of it’s content, it is instead hoped that you will reward the person instead by giving them a small amount of funds for their great content that you’ve already seen and recognized as such. Both approaches maintain the important ideals of the Web with regards to having open and accessible content that is available to read by anyone.
It is an interesting approach to things, giving freely as a reward instead of being forced to pay for this online content. Yet I don’t think people are ready to accept such a radical paradigm shift. Mainly because we are so ingrained in our ways. To stop that big massive wheel of payments and instead turn it back on itself and change it to giving as a reward is still too radical a step for people to take right now. People are just used to not paying for something unless they absolutely have to do so.
It is kind of sad though. I mean imagine if you took $20/month (the price of two or three magazines) and decided to give it to those people online that you truly appreciated and valued their content. I wonder what would happen if a large enough percentage of people started doing this (i.e. achieving a tipping point)? Would anything change? And more importantly would people be able to support themselves? Of course for this reward model to work, the money has to keep flowing. So if one popular site received lots of funds in reward for their great content, they in turn would have to give to those other sites in reward for their help in recommending and drive traffic to them. If anyone breaks the flow though (i.e. hordes their funds and stops giving) then it would break the flow.
Thus as noted earlier, the only way for this to be realized would be if a substantial number of people did it (i.e. achieved a tipping point). Again, I just don’t think people’s mindset are ready for this kind of reward / giving approach yet.