Information and money

Overall, the way money and information flow on the internet seems pretty screwy to me, and I imagine we ought to be able to do a lot better. Some examples that have been on my mind lately (and which I’d love to hear thoughts on):

Email

Email is terrible. Why is email terrible? The basic problem (and this observation is certainly not original to me, I think I first heard it from Joel Spolsky): email is

  1. a to-do list
  2. that other people put stuff on
  3. for free.

Oops.

At a minimum, it would be great if you could charge people to email you. Your attention is valuable, the more so the busier and more in-demand you are. To go into more detail on the basic economics here: suppose one email’s worth of your attention is worth 10 cents on average. You are currently selling it for 0 cents. What happens when a thing is being sold for less than its true market price is that people try to buy as much of it as they possibly can (if nothing else, in order to resell it); hence spam, and hence spam filters. Spam filters impose a non-monetary cost on spammers: now they have to put in enough work to try to evade spam filters. Since one email is worth 10 cents, spammers will put in up to a bit less than 10 cents worth of work per email to do this. So the spam situation is okay as long as it takes more than 10 cents worth of work to evade a spam filter once, at least in this basic analysis. But spam filters don’t address the broad category of email that isn’t quite spam but just isn’t a very good use of your time.

There’s a complicated question of how to properly price different kinds of emails (machine learning?), but for starters, a flat rate + a whitelist of people who can email you for free already seems way better than the current situation, to me. Maybe also a priority rate for people who really want to be at the top of your inbox.

There are already services that claim to do this, but I don’t think I know anyone who uses them. I imagine there are some social issues with initial adoption; to me it feels like claiming a lot of status to do this when most people aren’t (I had this issue with Calendly), which is a big part of my hesitation. Maybe people are worried that their friends would be offended. It would be better for something like this to be rolled out as a feature of the next version of Gmail, so everyone gets it at the same time.

(Recently I’ve heard several of my friends express dismay at how unmanageable their Messenger inboxes have gotten too. Basically this same analysis applies to Messenger, texts, messages on dating sites / apps, etc.)

(I should mention that I, personally, am quite happy with the state of my inboxes; please don’t consider this a discouragement from getting in touch with me! I mostly don’t want this in order to get fewer emails / messages myself, I want it so I can more easily email / message friends of mine I know have huge inboxes.)

Books, TV, movies, music, and digital objects generally

It looks to me like we still haven’t figured out how the economics of digital objects should work (I would love to find out I’m wrong about this). The basic problem, of course, is that by default anyone who owns a digital object can also distribute unlimited copies of it.

For awhile the main distribution model was pirating. Now we have options like Netflix for TV and Amazon for ebooks, which respectively rely on 1) streaming video that can’t easily be downloaded and 2) DRM so books can’t easily be copied; in other words, companies cripple the native capacities of the digital object to make it more like an ordinary object, so it can be bought and sold in more like the usual way. (I don’t know who to credit for first making these observations.)

Netflix works pretty well for TV, because in fact I don’t want to download most of the TV I want to watch. But, for example, I find the current ebook economy unsatisfying, mostly because most ebooks cost more than I want to pay for them, but also because DRM feels like an ugly hack to me. I don’t just want to pirate books all the time, though, because I want authors to be able to make a living. Here’s a random idea for how ebooks could work instead:

Instead of DRM, the end of an ebook could have a link where I could pay / donate / tip money directly to the author after I finish reading their book. This seems to me to have better incentives for authors than the current system; when I pay for books before reading them, authors are incentivized to make books look attractive and interesting, but if I paid after reading them, authors could be more incentivized to write books that cause me to feel grateful for having read them. I have personally both pirated a lot of books and felt grateful enough to want to send money to the author after reading many of them.

Ads

I’ve thought the least about this one but it might be the most important. It’s really bizarre how much of the world is run by companies that make almost all of their money from ads, and consequently how much effort is aimed at showing people ads. The resulting incentive to eat as much of everyone’s free attention as possible might be slowly destroying civilization.

Are better funding models possible? Why don’t we just pay Google and Facebook directly for their services?

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