Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How to Ruin the Internet

I was irritated, then fascinated, then spooked by Marshall Brain's proposal to monetize the web with a "penny per page" or similar fee system, located on How Stuff Works here.

The idea is simple: it's hard to make money on the web, so by charging a tiny admission price to all web pages, those of us who create content can be paid for our efforts. Brain assures us this will create incentive to launch more and better content, dramatically improving the web's offerings.

As a site publisher with about 300 active pages, it would be nice to stop writing checks and start collecting them. But Brain's scheme won't work. 

Here's why: The living wage money starts at about 8,000 hits per day, or $560/week ($29,120/year, before taxes). That's for Americans and many others, but in many countries that's a jackpot. The incentive for page mills to begin turning out redundant medical advice sites and duplications of just about everything else on the web will explode. Plenty of Americans will get their cut, too. Think it's hard to find the title of the new book by John Smith? Wait until there are two dozen imitation sites for every genuine page.

That's not the central reason the idea won't work. The problem is that it is socialistic -- a wage and price control scheme. There is no difference in value between a web page explaining how to aid a choking victim and a page with a blurry photo of someone's budgie. The web will be flooded with bad pages, including thousands promising to tell you how to game the system.

Expect to have thirty windows open on your browser for all the sites you might re-visit in the next week.

Entrepreneurs will line up networks of dubious sites receiving unintentional traffic and pay them to seed their "Get Your Money Refunded" link with links to pages that only seem to go in the right direction.

Large merchant sites will see they can retain traffic by deducting user fees from purchases, but the less agile will have to cram lots of merchandise onto every page. Some will add a step or two to paying.

New, eclectic sites with no credentials will face a much steeper challenge drawing new traffic.

Load times will skyrocket as the length of each individual page swells to amounts big enough to hold an entire site. Scrolling will require dragging the mouse from one end of the room to the other.

Taxes will rise as we pay for internet use by government and schools. More people will do their web surfing on the job, so the employer pays.

The next Google will rise on the humble duty of certifying which web sites are genuine and fit to visit. Their income will come from the certification fees paid by people like me, taking a good chunk out of our new revenue. The firm contracting to collect and distribute all that revenue will take a cut -- Brain says a maximum of 5%.

Brain hits video with a pay per view fee of around twenty cents. I imagine the ISPs will lobby for a cut as well, since it's their bandwidth that's videos are devouring.

I'd love to report about a breakthrough in making money from your site traffic, but this isn't it. Not only is it unworkable, but it would destroy the internet as we know it.