Category: Web/Tech

Google the Revolution!

By popular demand we have added a search box to the left sidebar. Should, for example, you want to find all posts by your favorite Revolutionary, just search for Tabarrok! Now that we are getting lots of hits and a fair number of links, Google has a pretty good archive of MR. But you can help by putting a link to www.MarginalRevolution.com on your homepage – this will further draw the attention of the great Google spider! Thanks. You can, of course, also find content by category and date in the Archives.

Advice for budding bloggers

Here is more on how blogs succeed, or fail, from Daniel Drezner. Focus on your audience, he says, rather than obsessing on getting links from the popular mega-blogs, such as Instapundit. Don’t neglect the link from Electric Venom, she says the world of blogging is a bit like high school, it has its bullies, people who go through friends like laundry, and so on. Her conclusion: don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it. John Scalzi tells us that the future belongs to the amateur blogger (N.B.: he is paid), and that the mega-bloggers have to focus on boring topics, such as Howard Dean.

Arguments against micropayments

Why not use web technology to charge people very small bits for downloading songs, or reading blogs for that matter? An earlier note of mine discussed mental transactions costs — having to ponder the small charge each time — as a potential problem. An excellent post by Daniel Davies provides further, and better, ammunition against the micropayments idea. His key point: at some point micropayments have to clear through real financial institutions and the real shuffling of paper. Right now we don’t have the technology to do this more cheaply than credit card companies do, and they don’t find very small transactions to be worth their while.

Addendum: Here is a good response in defense of the practicality of micropayments.

The Demise of Crypto Anarchy

Crypto anarchists and cyber-libertarians promised a new world of privacy and liberty built on the foundations of the internet and public key cryptography. As David Friedman memorably put it public key cryptograpy allows “anonymity with reputation” thus it becomes possible in theory to evade the taxman while still maintaining a public presence.

All of this now looks somewhat naive. Consider, for example, how internet gambling has been quashed. First, the credit card companies caved into government pressure and refused to process gambling related transactions. Initially, gamblers shrugged this off and routed their transactions through PayPal but a U.S District Attorney accused PayPal of violating the USA Patriot Act and to avoid charges PayPal was forced to pony up 10 million dollars. (Why am I not surprised that a law intended to go after terrorists has been used to most affect against peaceful gamblers?). Entrepreneurs have taken their online gambling sites to places where it is legal like Antigua and Costa Rica but don’t try coming home again. When Jay Cohen, founder of the World Sport Exchange, did that he was tried, convicted and jailed in a Federal prison.

The cyber-anarchists and libertarians were correct about the technology – public key cryptography can do what they say it can do – so where did the argument go wrong? In part, the cyber anarchists forgot that most of the value of cyberspace comes from its overlap with real space. I don’t blog anonymously because I want to be rewarded for my blogging with something that I can use to buy a car (ok, maybe a toaster is more realistic). Even if privacy is perfect in cyberspace the many margins of overlap with real space leave plenty of room for authority to insert its hooks especially when authority itself is technologically adept. Moreover, as Richard Posner has noted, the demand for privacy is more often than not a demand for control over the public presentation of self and cryptography does nothing to help and may even impede that demand.

The cyber-anarchist world works in a thought-experiment when everyone demands privacy and as a result the technology for getting privacy is built into all of our communications structures and used as a matter of routine. But that’s a description of an equilibrium and not a description of how to get there from here. At present, most people are not that bothered with privacy and so do not, for example, encrypt their email. As a result, privacy is not convenient even for those who want it. Indeed, someone who encrypts their email or phone conversations is probably calling more attention to themselves than they otherwise would.

The cyber anarchists may yet be proven right but today David Brin’s forecast of a Transparent Society in which no one has privacy, including authority, is looking far more realistic. Need I mention this as proof of Brin’s thesis?

An argument why micropayments for Internet content will never work

Will advanced technology allow suppliers to charge people very small amounts for reading web sites, blogs, and other kinds of material? No, says Clay Shirky, mental transactions costs will remain. Here is his bottom line:

The people pushing micropayments believe that the dollar cost of goods is the thing most responsible for deflecting readers from buying content, and that a reduction in price to micropayment levels will allow creators to begin charging for their work without deflecting readers.

This strategy doesn’t work, because the act of buying anything, even if the price is very small, creates what Nick Szabo calls mental transaction costs, the energy required to decide whether something is worth buying or not, regardless of price.

Read more:

Weblogs, in particular, represent a huge victory for voluntarily subsidized content. The weblog world is driven by a million creative people, driven to get the word out, willing to donate their work, and unhampered by the costs of xeroxing, ink, or postage. Given the choice of fame vs fortune, many people will prefer a large audience and no user fees to a small audience and tiny user fees. This is not to say that creators cannot be paid for their work, merely that mandatory user fees are far less effective than voluntary donations, sponsorship, or advertising.

Because information is hard to value in advance, for-fee content will almost invariably be sold on a subscription basis, rather than per piece, to smooth out the variability in value. Individual bits of content that are even moderately close in quality to what is available free, but wrapped in the mental transaction costs of micropayments, are doomed to be both obscure and unprofitable.