I wish micropayments weren’t dead, because I think they have a future as microgifts

I keep thinking about Grant McCracken’s recent post on micropayments. In it, he talks about this kid Jimmy who is a YouTube phenom, and who is also working at Denny’s because he needs the money. It’s not like YouTube viewers pay him. It’s not like Jimmy is looking to strike it rich, either — but what if viewers who liked his stuff tossed a nickel his way? He could spend the summer making videos instead of working at Denny’s, that’s what.

The problem, as McCracken sees it, is:

…there isn’t any financial architecture that makes it possible for us to pay Jimmy his nickel. … What we need is a financial system capable of delivering fractional amounts in a frictionless way. When looking at one of Jimmy’s videos we that they can just hit a button and keep going. No signing in or keeping track. Jimmy gets a nickel. We fill up our virtual wallet every quarter or so, distributing fractional amounts til it’s gone. [emphasis mine]

That’s a huge part of the problem, absolutely. Existing micropayment systems haven’t really delivered fractional amounts in a frictionless way.

Past schemes created friction in two ways. First, you had to figure out if something (a video, a story) is really going to be worth twenty-five cents for you to see, and the cognitive load associated with that decision is probably not worth twenty-five cents of your time so you skip it. The second problem is restricting access to folks who have paid, and the hassle of hoop-jumping to access stuff worth a quarter is pretty much a non-starter for most people, so again, you skip it.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve read Clay Shirky on why micropayments are doomed:

These systems didn’t fail because of poor implementation; they failed because the trend towards freely offered content is an epochal change, to which micropayments are a pointless response.

I think the real friction is the resistance to requiring small payments. But what if micropayments worked more like a tip jar?

Not pay to play it, but tip if it was great. Make it optional, so you as the user get the goods first, and then you give something back if you want to give. This gets around the real reason for previous failure with micropayments: users hate them.

Most of us don’t hate giving gifts. Imagine setting up an account once (arguably, here’s the hassle part still) and depositing money once every few months. (Maybe the transfer happens automatically, even easier.) Then, with just a click or two, you give tiny gifts — along with a comment on a blog post, or marking a flickr photo a favorite, or after you watch a video on YouTube — to the people who create work you love.