Paying your readers
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #67

If bits are valuable, then we may pay to receive them. If, instead, people are valuable, we pay to have them create content for us - to send us bits. We may also pay to have them receive the content we create - to send them bits - as people at both ends of the content matter, even if content, in itself, does not.

This is not a new idea. Long before the information age existed as a concept, it has been acknowledged that experts are useful both for producing and for consuming, for writing and for reading, for creating and for evaluating. Perhaps there are rather more valued originators than readers (used here as a generic term for consumers of content), if only because that is the most obvious distribution. So, for all the authors you must read or the pianists you have to hear, there are very few you to whom you absolutely must show your writing, or for whom you have to play, and would pay to do so.

Except for teachers, examiners and critics of various sorts who are, one could say, paid to read, the 'real world' of brickspace has few experts - whose value is accepted - at the receiving end of the content stream. Nor, really, does cyberspace, partly because it has no money either.

If money is set aside for the moment, one can see how a knowledge economy would value its readers, and how the Internet already does. This value appears in many forms and contexts. The simplest is in advertising. Recipients of advertising content are paid, indirectly for the moment, by the advertisers who produce that content. True, there is the hope that readers of advertising will become paying consumers of some other product, but this is not guaranteed. As far as the advertisement - in itself a product - is concerned, its value is in its recipients.

Then there are the evaluators. These are individuals, or groups, who receive content to which they provide a useful response. They may read a lot, and write little in return, but unlike editors who do something similar but are paid to create content, evaluators are paid to read. Even the single word 'good', coming from them, is valuable. Evaluators in groups perform the peer reviews of academia, and play that role in cyberspace too. Most live resources - groups of people interacting to create valuable content - rely on everyone acting as evaluator when a new idea appears. And although new ideas may originate from within a group, its participants will fulfill their role as reviewers for outsiders too.

Finally, there are the important people, the 'gods' from whom one may not even want any concrete evaluation, but who are valuable simply as readers. These are, in a way, readers of advertising, for some nebulous good is usually expected of their reading. The value of these gods makes most apparent the prominence of people - consumers as well as producers - in the content business.

But it is a problem as much as a solution, as it highlights the intangibles of valuing people, and the need for an alternative to affixing price-tags on them. In a strange world where valuable creators consume and produce relatively valueless creations, an ordinary monetary currency is, perhaps, not good enough.

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