Skip to main content

Predicting the Failure of BitPass

Clay Shirky is a smart guy who has written a lot about the Internet and social interaction. He weighs in again on the everlasting micropayments debate with a critique of BitPass and the current renewed enthusiasm for micropayments.

Most of the current enthusiasm for micropayments, BitPass in particular, appears to be from webcomics. Shirky may be completely unfamilar with the messed-up structure of the "comics marketplace" and it may not even have any relevance to the points he's making about content, publishing and markets generally.

But it might.

UPDATE: Scott McCloud responds to Shirky with, as those bloggers like to say, a right-good fisking, and Joey Manley weighs in with a rant based on his own experience publishing Modern Tales. Both thoughtful responses in a needed debate.

Re: Predicting the Failure of BitPass

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

One thing that also seems to be lurking in various comments to this debate can be reduced to "how f#cked up is the existing "legacy" media industry structure? Yes BitPass isn't as "frictionless" as magic pixie dust, but isn't it more informative to compare it to your options? Particularly your options offline.

For webcomics, Bitpass is creating a price point for a single well-established industry sales unit, the comic book, that hasn't been available at a similarly reasonable price in A LONG TIME. Similarly Itunes provides a well-established (but in that case fallen into disuse) sales unit, the single at a reasonable price. There's no confusion to the typical buyer of these things - I know what a comic book is, I know what a single is. And the options online are simply a better value for the money.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

Re: Predicting the Failure of BitPass

Joey Manley's picture

I've just responded at great length to Shirky here:

Joey Manley's Rants: Current Installment

Joey
www.moderntales.com

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

Joey Manley's picture

You seem to have missed the part where I pointed out that I was limiting my comments to professional content, which is, by definition, published with the goal of earning some money for the creator.

I think that amateur publishing (by definition: publishing for the sake of getting your work out there, with no desire for capital gain) is great -- I've run an amateur publishing portal before, and am thrilled that the web makes it so easy to publish anything, at anytime. I also think that amateur content is some of the best content on the web.

The existence of great amateur content has no bearing on the need for professionals to earn a living, or at least make some money, creating content.

Thanks!

Joey
www.moderntales.com

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

Joey Manley's picture

I agree with you wholeheartedly on the final point of the debate: "is the web big enough for free and pay content?"

Modern Tales' success proves, to me anyway, that it is. None of our competitors charges. And yet we make the same amount of gross revenue, and a presumably larger profit, as our biggest and most successful competitor. On 1/100th of the audience base. Modern Tales and Keenspot happily co-exist. They're both professional comics portals (though one is free, and advertising supported, and the other is pay-only).

I do believe that anybody who does not make money at his/her field of artistic endeavor is an amateur, and that anybody who does, is not. That's not an opinion, really: it's the actual definition of the words "amateur" and "professional."

The cartoonist who works the night shift at Starbucks, and the other one who works at the hotel reception desk, are real people, known to me personally. They have both made a living as cartoonists in the past, and wish to make a living as cartoonists in the future, but do not do so currently. They both desire to work on the web, due to bad experiences dealing with print publishers in the past. To say that they have no right to attempt to make money from their work, or that they are greedy bastards just "out to make a buck" because they have this desire, is far more insulting than anything I've written in any of my essays.

For that matter, the "amateur" who has hundreds of thousands of visitors to his/her website every day, and is starting to have to pay hundreds of dollars a month in web hosting, had better become a professional right quickly -- or stop making comics. Those are the kinds of situations that BitPass and other user-pay systems (like Modern Tales) are designed to help cartoonists get themselves out of, no matter whether we want to call them "amateur" or "professional" or what, and no matter how they feel about, say, Open Source software (which is such a different animal from content, really) or, say, the price of tea in China.

Joey
www.moderntales.com

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

In a way, you have re-stated the point that I've been trying to make, which is that there is a perceived tie between monetary value and legitimacy. In a way, it's a vicious circle. There is no money in it because there is no perceived legitimacy. There is no perceived legitimacy because people can't make money off of it.

However, I will try and state again value does not necessarily mean monetary value and that money is not the only backing for legitimacy.

Are my words really that ineffectual at conveying this idea?

-FD

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

Joey Manley's picture

"Amateur content is great ... some of the best content on the web is amateur content."

-- Joey Manley, in this thread

Now, where was I unclear?

I specified that I did not wish to discuss amateur content in my original essay, because I am not interested in furthering the cause of amateur content, particularly (amateur content, --literally, content produced without desire or expectation of fiscal reward -- as you and I both know, is doing better than it ever has been, thanks to the web, and there's no stopping it). What I'm interested in is helping develop business models that can reward those content creators who do not happen to be interested in producing content without desire or expectation of fiscal reward.

And pardon me for interpreting your wholehearted endorsement of the "information wants to be free" party line (I think you even acknowledged that you were a "zealot" for this particular brand of 'net religion) as a belief that it is unethical to charge for content. Others who espouse that worldview have certainly made that claim, but I should be more careful in ascribing the whole Open Content agenda to everyone who makes use of the phrase that typifies it.

All in all, I'd say that this dialogue, from Shirky's essay, all the way through our exchanges here, has been rewarding and interesting for everybody concerned. I know I've learned a lot! Thanks, FractalDragon!

Joey
www.moderntales.com

Re: Predicting the Failure of BitPass

Greg Stephens's picture

While I like the sound of a lot of what Clay Shirky says, there's one major flaw in it: The presumption that free content works because there's no associated growing cost with digital publishing. Well, maybe with some forms there isn't, but on the web, as we all well know, the cost is in bandwidth. The more readers you have, the more bandwidth you use and the more your webhost will charge. Even if you're hosting your website on your own box in your own home, you've got to pay for the connection to the 'net and the more readers you have, the more bandwidth you need (or want) and the more you'll have to pay for it. To say nothing of the bill for the electricity that keeps the whole damn thing running. The money has to come from somewhere to keep it going and either it comes from a day job or it comes from the readers.

Ask not what the net can do for you...

As a rebuttal to Mr. Manley's statements that are supposed to advocate that "Information want to be valued", I must say that "value" does not necessarily mean "monetary value"... and it also does not follow that "free" content is valueless. The fact that these two notions are automatically assumed in these discussions is disturbing. It seems that in this age of ubiquitous capitalism, people seem to assume that everyone is out to make a buck. However, the increasing existance of "free" web comics, "free" literature and "free" software (and the existance of, as Mr. Manley puts it, "the 'information wants to be free' zealots") all point to the fact that there are plenty of people who are on the net for reasons other than monetary gain.

Personally, I am in the "information wants to be free" camp and I am insulted by Mr. Manley's insinuations that free content, if left to its own devices would result in " 'zany' but empty material". There is more out there than just making money... and contrary to Mr. Manley's statements, it's not about "enjoy working the night shift at Starbucks or the front reception desk at the hotel", but about enjoying the act of creating my art for others to experience.

-FD

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

I did not miss that point. What I think you have overlooked is the nature of the metric used to distinguish between amateur and professional content.

The problem I find with your definition is that it is based purely on the intent behind a particular piece of content, and that the distinction is black or white. By the given definition, any random person who throws together some content with the express purpose of making money off of it is considered a "professional" where as a working artist (i.e. say a person who works as a writer, illustrator, musician, etc. for a living) who decideds to produce a work and offer it up for free is still considered an "amateur".

You also mention that you would only deal with "professionally produced, high quality entertainment content", however you proceed to make examples of things that do not fit your focus (i.e. the comment about enjoying working the night shift ... which I will admit to being the comment that I am most annoyed with)

I do agree with your statement that amateur content has no bearing on the need for professionals to make money creating content. However, the original Shirky article doens't address need at all. Its point is that the existance of free content on the web makes charging for content in that environment less viable (well, Shirky states that it's not viable at all, but I don't know if I buy that yet).

From your article and your response, it appears you want to limit the scope of the issue only to the content that is produced for monetary value. However, due to the nature of the net, that is not feasible. The fact is that any pay-for content on the net will have to compete with all the free content on the web. And, I cannot help but feel that the side of pay-for content is, whether consciously or unconsciously, adopting and promoting the notion that, by virtue of monetary value, pay-for content is intrinsically better than free content.

It seems the real question becomes "is the net big enough for both free and pay-for content"... I guess only time will tell.

Re: Predicting the Failure of BitPass

Scott McCloud's picture

Nice Job, Joey. Here's MY response, and it's a BIG one:
http://www.scottmccloud.com/home/essays/2003-09-micros/micros.html

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

Scott McCloud's picture

Well, no. My point is they want nothing to do with it because there's no money in it. And they need to make a living like everybody else.

And no, it wasn't a proper statistic. Though I'm confident that it's about that proportion. How many webcomics have Neil Gaiman, Alex Ross or Alan Moore created lately?

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

Joey Manley's picture

I don't mean to dismiss the power and legitimacy of the open publishing movement. When I ran freespeech.org (which was very different then than it is now -- look it up on archive.org, prior to January, 1999, if you want to see it when I ran it), that was my entire existence: opening up the "airwaves," as it were, to the "people."

What changed my career direction wasn't any turning away from that ideal, but a realization that that battle has been, definitively, won. You may see people devaluing free content -- I don't. I see people assuming that "free" is the only way that content should be delivered. I see this overwhelmingly. And, as an artist, and as a businessman, that overwhelming assent I see out there to the "information wants to be free" party line depresses me.

I should note that I also believe that "information wants to be free" has been fundamentally misunderstood by many.

The assumption of "free" that bothers me has nothing to do with, for example, free speech. And everything to do with free beer. This is an important distinction often made by the Open Source movement. Windows Media Player, for example, is Free Beer, because Microsoft doesn't charge for it -- anybody, even Macintosh users, can download and install it for free. But they can't touch the code, or improve the software in any way. Ogg Vorbis is Free as in Free Speech, because anyone can take the code, adapt the code, and offer those adaptations, and that new code, back to the community as a whole. Free Beer isn't particularly revolutionary, even by the standards of the Open Source movement.

Why am I going off on this tangent? Because the idealism and energy generated by the Free Software movement (who are aligned around Free Speech, not Free Beer) has been misinterpreted by many in the content community, and those misinterpreted concepts are often misapplied.

Generally, when Free Beer is being provided by a commercial source (note, again, I am talking about commercial sources -- not because I wish to dismiss amateur sources, but because commercial sources are where the "problem" is), there's an agenda behind it. For example, the bar offers Free Beer to the ladies so that drunken loutish men can come and pay money for Nonfree Beer. Commercial websites offer Free Beer Content so that they can hit you up with popups, or even with non-obstrusive banners that wish to push products on you. Yet the commercial sources of Free Beer Content are often the very ones who try to pretend that asking people to pay for content (a mechanism which clearly rewards the independent, non-corporate creator more quickly than advertising would) is Evil.

Now, to the issue of, shall we say, non-financially-ambitious-for-their-content content creators (we'll call them NFAFTC creators, for short): many of them do good work, many of them do powerful work, and more and more of them do popular work that outperforms even the most heavily marketed commercial website, in terms of traffic.

If you believe, as I do, that in a perfectly frictionless economy of attention -- which is what the Internet is, pretty much -- the better work will almost always bubble to the top, and the less-good work will almost never bubble to the top, in terms of popularity and attention, then you've got to acknowledge that there's a serious problem with the way the system of rewards for content creators currently works.

Again, let's posit a creator who is doing work out of the goodness of his/her own heart, or enthusiasm for the subject matter or the medium.

Now let's assume that, on top of all that, this creator is good -- damn good -- the best comics creator who has ever lived.

That person will get some attention.

Let's further assume (because this is almost always the case), that that creator has purchased a $5/year or $8/month or even a $25/month web hosting account that has a very limited amount of permissible basic bandwidth, and a very steep price on bandwidth over the limit.

Now let's assume that that creator's comic, because it's so good, so bursting with energy and zeal and beauty and power -- gets slashdotted, or memepooled, or, whatever, linked on some popular website somewhere. And over a million people stop by. And he/she gets hit up with a bill for monthly bandwidth in excesss of $15,000 by his/her hosting provider.

Think I'm making it up? I'm not.

As others have pointed out, the fundamental flaw in Shirky's essay is that he assumes that bandwidth is so cheap as to be almost free. For text-based content, which uses relatively little bandwidth, massive audience growth without a corresponding reliable revenue model in place is probably feasible. But it's not feasible for webcomics, or animations, or video, or audio, or anything that takes up more bandwidth than the average blog post.

So what is this hypothetical creator to do? (Actually, he isn't so hypothetical -- he made a Flash animation called NosePilot -- I interviewed him when I worked at streamingmedia.com -- and you can't see him work on the web anymore, as far as I know, beautiful and powerful and deep and filled with the spirit of sharing that it was). Does he pay the bill and eat ramen noodles for the next five years? Does he find an attorney, fight the bill, and, because of his *attorney's* bill, eat ramen for the next five years? More importantly -- does he create more beautiful and daring and powerful and intensely meaningful content? Does he put up a tip jar and pray for tips? (And even if he does that, what happens after the crisis is over -- do you think he'll take the chance on having this happen again?)

Maybe he goes and gets a job with an animation studio. Which is fine for him, right? But the web is the poorer for it, because he's not creating his work for the new medium anymore -- he's joined the forces of the old media.

Or maybe he just gives up.

I don't like it when people who succeed in touching me, and thousands of others, with their art, have only those two choices (leaving the web for old media, where they can support their content creation habit without fear of getting hit with massive bandwidth bills, or leaving the web and creating nothing, nada, zip, blank).

So I believe that it's necessary to create a professional opportunity for popular creators -- or at the very least, to create an opportunity to help them avoid losing money -- so that extremely popular, extremely good content creators can continue to put their work online. And can do so without having to sell their heart and soul (the work itself) to a corporation, either in the form of putting up porn banners and X-10 camera pop-ups, or in the form of handing the content over whole hog (like the Ninjai.com guys had to do) to a company like Macromedia Shockwave/AtomFilms. It seems to me that asking people to pay for some content is a reasonable way to go about this.

And luckily for my own brand of idealism, that way seems to be working -- for Modern Tales, at least.

Thanks!

Joey
www.moderntales.com

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

I do believe that anybody who does not make money at his/her field of artistic endeavor is an amateur, and that anybody who does, is not. That's not an opinion, really: it's the actual definition of the words "amateur" and "professional."

Yes, it is the actual dictionary definition of the words "amateur and "professional". However, in the context of public perception, there are other connotations associated with those words (and you seem to imply those connotations, whether consciously or not, in your writings).

to say that they have no right to attempt to make money from their work, or that they are greedy bastards just "out to make a buck" because they have this desire, is far more insulting than anything I've written in any of my essays.

When did I or, for that matter, Shirky, ever say that people have no right to make money? This is not, and I don't think it ever was, the issue. The point I'm trying to make is that the success or failure of the micropayment model is not whether or not it's a legitimate practice; it is obviously clear that it is. The issue is whether it can be successful in the environment of the internet.

Sure, people "desire" to work on the web because certain elements of that publishing medium (for lack of a better phrase) are attractive. However, like any other medium, there will be inherent negative aspects as well. In the case of the web, the pros of having a low cost of entry and a large potential audience are inevitably tied to the cons of having a glut of variable quality content and the aversion that members of the audience have to paying for content. As I stated before, only time will tell if it is nominally feasible for creators in general (or at least those who wish to do this) to be able to "have their cake and eat it too".

The main issue that I have been trying to focus on (and obviously failing) is tha legitimacy of free content. There has been, and still is, this perception that content offered for free (as in offering content primarily for the sake of offering content) is of questionable value. Also, it seems that this perception has grown to the scale that content offered on the net in general is of questionable value. Both you and Mr. McCloud have suggested this in the numerous writings that have been posted on the net. It seems like micropayments is a direct knee-jerk result of trying to counter this perception by adding something of real (i.e. monetary) value to what was once perceived as free content. However, I believe this is detrimental since the perception then becomes, "why would I pay for content B when there is so much content A that is free". The problem still is that pay-for net content is still linked to free net content, and this link carries with it the stygma of questionable legitimacy.

So in the end, I don't have any issue with people trying to make money off of subscriptions of micropayments or whatever. I have issue with the proponents of such models undermining the legitimacy of free and open content on the web.

-FD

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

To be fair, I may have misinterpreted the section in your respons where you say:

Until then, we’re left with a patchwork of hobbyists, bloggers, corporate promo, online mail-order and desperate screaming pop-up ads. The artists among us are relegated to noble failures and lovable martyrs—giving away their art for nothing ‘til the rent is due and they have to go back to flipping burgers. I know far too many of these people to accept Shirky's placid scenario. They're tired, they're frustrated, and they're quitting in droves.

as being derogatory towards the content producers currently out there. Sorry for that mis-interpretation.

However, your line that:

There's a reason why 99% of comics established talent want nothing to do with webcomics. It's because they enjoy paying the rent.

troubles me. I am not knowledgeable in the field of established comic talent, so I do not know if you are quoting from actual statistics or from a perception, but this statement, whether actual or perceived, can also be interpreted as suggesting that the web lacks legitimacy in terms of content. It can almost be read as "anyone with talent wouldn't want anything to do with webcomics since there is no 'value' in it".

The way I see it, the main problem is still one of legitimacy. Until the public perception of the value of net content is somehow raised, it will be an obstacle to any business model for the net IMHO.

-FD

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

Scott McCloud's picture

Here I think you've touched on a potential for real misunderstanding. I don't disagree with much of that last statement.

Still, I think that in the long run, you'll find the lion's share of users will be able to accept the presence of premium content without denigrating free stuff in the process.

Re: Predicting the Failure of BitPass

The mental transaction cost mentioned is one of the reasons, after my first experience with paying for comic content, that I will most likely NEVER again pay for any such service. It was too frustrating to mess with and I would hate to imagine one of my readers going through the same frustration that I went through. Instead, I donate if I like something.

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

hehe... I said I subscribe to the "information wants to be free" line, but I never said I was a zealot. I have no qualms about people charging for content. I do not believe I have ever said in this thread that it was wrong or unethical to charge for content. I favor the philosophy that information that is open is preferable, but I in no way believe that everyone else must believe the same. Mostly its to counter the people who think that information is _NOT_ ment to be free and that it _SHOULDN'T_ be offered without charging for it.

The issue that I had with your response was that you seem to compartmentalize amateur and professional (as in the traditional definiton) content in an issue where the interaction of the two is important (i.e. you cannot analyse the viability of pay-for content on the web without taking into account the existance of a massive amount of free content).

Also, like you say, amateur (traditional definition) is doing great, but as long as it is viewed as "amateur" (as in the popular definition), it lacks a sense of legitimacy for being high quality (think of it as a glass ceiling on the maximum "value" of the work). Maybe legitimacy isn't exactly the right word... maybe credibility is... who knows...

-FD

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

please do not take any of my comments as an attack of any sort. I am merely pointing out, even though you are a staunch proponent of legitimacy for free content, your words echo the idea that this perception of illegitimacy exists (you've even run up against it yourself as you state above).

the root problem here is not a lack of generating money from such content. That is a direct effect. I believe the real cause is the perception of value that people have of content on the web. The use of models such as micropayments may not only be ineffective at changing this... I fear that they may actually exacerbate the problem by contributing to the perception that monetary value is the only type of value (and thusly the only type of valid backing for legitimacy) for content. I may be totally wrong in this, but until someone shows me otherwise, it's a concern.

I guess the bottom line is that there's more to it than just the money... but that seems to be getting lost in the noise.

-FD

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

Scott McCloud's picture

There has been, and still is, this perception that content offered for free (as in offering content primarily for the sake of offering content) is of questionable value. Also, it seems that this perception has grown to the scale that content offered on the net in general is of questionable value. Both you and Mr. McCloud have suggested this in the numerous writings that have been posted on the net. It seems like micropayments is a direct knee-jerk result of trying to counter this perception by adding

Whoa. Hang on a minute.

That was never my belief. My favorite webcomics, which I've plugged like crazy for years, have nearly all been free.

My point is that if that same work had been available for a dime I would have happily supported it and I think many others would have as well.

The *lack* of that option doesn't mean that those creators are any less talented or their work any less worthy. It means they can rarely work on it at all without *starving* and so we get far *less* of that work.

When my stuff is free, you get a panel a day (a la The Morning Improv -- still free). When it's 25 cents you get full-length online graphic novels. There's a reason why 99% of comics established talent want nothing to do with webcomics. It's because they enjoy paying the rent.

That said, I agree with the idea that "amateur" and 'professional" are archaic terms that can do a disservice to great artists like Justine Shaw and Patrick Farley who have been giving it away for years, but I accept that Joey was using them for their literal meaning.

Re: Ask not what the net can do for you...

Scott McCloud's picture

In a way, you have re-stated the point that I've been trying to make, which is that there is a perceived tie between monetary value and legitimacy. In a way, it's a vicious circle. There is no money in it because there is no perceived legitimacy. There is no perceived legitimacy because people can't make money off of it.

There is no money in it because there was no practical way to *generate* money from it. How do you think this whole micros debate got started?.

I *never* accused free content of lacking "legitimacy". I've even battled that very perception in discussions of the Eisner Awards' lack of an online category (due to requirements of pro status).

I'm also on record as early as 1986(!) saying that the whole pro/amateur distinction is nonsense. I recently told one of the Pants Pressers that as far as I was concerned, the only real distinction was between "serious" creators and those who were "just screwing around" and that I considered that particular creator's (free) content to be firmly in the "serious" camp.

BUT I do believe strongly that any serious, committed artist is entitled -- if they *choose* -- to try to become a professional to support themselves and their family and to make the production of new work practical.

Then it's just a question of whether at least some users will support such work. I believe that in some cases the answer will be yes.

And now at last, we have some evidence to back up that assertion.