The dream that micropayments can monetize online content and subsequently save the journalism industry just won't die. In the latest, bitcoin's boom is resuscitating the theory that charging tiny amounts of money to access quality content can create a more flexible paywall, and give struggling online publishers an alternative revenue model.
Increasingly, intrepid publications and bloggers are experimenting with bitcoin micropayments, working with startups like BitWall and BitMonet that believe the digital coins can help reimagine loathed paywalls.
The virtual currency essentially makes it possible to pay by the drink instead of a cover charge at the door. Up until now publications were limited to subscription paywalls—say, $15.99 for a month’s access—because charges any smaller wouldn't be worth the 30 or so cents and 2 percent fee credit card companies charge for online payments. Bitcoin charges no transaction fees, so sites can give readers the option of paying per article, time period, or for special features or original "premium" content.
Bit by bit publishers are buying in—though at this point, they are mostly blogs with techie audiences that have a previous interest in the hacker currency. The latest is The Dish Daily, a website about innovation in Silicon Valley and Stanford University that implemented its BitWall fence just today. It customized its paywall to focus on getting readers to tweet the article, and isn't accepting bitcoin payments for access to content at this point.
The Dish Daily's flexible, micro-paywall gives a number of options for payment
Last week, the popular Brazilian science and culture magazine Super made headlines for introducing and promoting its futuristic micro-paywall. "You will also test the first journalistic paywall entirely based on bitcoins," the magazine wrote. "You just have to open your digital wallet and spend a few thousandths of a bitcoin.”
Super is betting the bitcoin hype could actually attract new readers who want to try out the novelty money. It’s encouraging readers to buy bitcoins and even explaining how to go about getting some. And the big feature it’s teasing behind the paywall? A story about bitcoin's booming popularity.
These paywall 2.0 models offer a few different options for readers to pick from. One is to give the publication free promotion, by sending out a tweet plugging their brand. If you don't want to do that, you can opt to see an advertisement in exchange for access. The third option is to pay the BTC equivalent of fractions of a cent—$0.01—to read a single story, or a bit more for 24-hour access to the site.
So what do content creators think? Outside of the early adopters, there's a lot of hesitation about bitcoin micropayments. One obvious worry is that it would lock out potential readers that didn't use the virtual currency, or have any interest in doing so—though startups are hoping the "choice" paywall model addresses this.
There’s also the question of whether the bitcoin hype and rapid ascent means the new currency is stable and here to stay or a bubble waiting to burst. Until we have a better idea, it’s doubtful major publications will start pimping cryptocurrency micropayments out to their readers. Then again, people said traditional paywalls would never work either, but it looks like readers might actually get used to the idea of paying for online content at all.