I never believed in the Pay What You Want economy. Then I went to Amman.
When new economy people talk about pay-what-you-want, they fixate on Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Louis C.K.’s “free” $5 comedy special (both of which are unique masterpieces, but that seems to be beside the point.) The Freakonomics team, which is obsessed with the different twists on these seemingly paradoxical PWYW schemes, went so for as to build an experiment into a preview screening of their movie. The minimum you could pay to attend was nothing, the most was $100.
Of the 5,000 who bought tickets, eighteen paid $100.
This baffled Stephen J. Dubner, who loves it when a contractor asks what he wants to pay for a service. “My answer is always the same,” he says. “’What I want to pay is zero. Does that work for you?’”
For a long time, I shared this sensibility. Then I went to Amman. Outside the central bus station, I asked a cab driver how much it cost to get to my hotel. He asked what I wanted to pay. (His actual words were: “what do you want to pay?”)
My negotiation skills had recently been hardened in Cairo. I told him I had five dinars. “If you think that’s fair,” he said, without batting an eye. And hit the gas. It was a longer drive than I realized, and the driver was a wealth of valuable intel that would later help me navigate the city. He offered me cigarettes and tea and cookies. By the time we arrived, I realized the ride had been worth more to me than what I told him I’d pay—more than any cab ride I’d ever experienced—and found myself renegotiating something six times higher than my original offer. But I felt good about the transaction.
This sort of transaction played out day after day in Amman, where an entire PWYW economy seemed to exist. No price I offered was ever refused. It culminated at a small tobacco shop, where I found myself holding an authentic Khalil Mamoon hookah. The owner knew immediately that I understood its value. When I asked him the cost, he asked: “what do you want to pay?” I low-balled him with an opening offer of $40 Canadian. (You can pay more than $100 for a knock off back home.)
To my surprise, he extended his hand to shake on the deal. Then walked around his shop, loading up a bag with accessories and tobacco. Clearly I had overpaid, and to make the deal fair, he was now adding to a shopping bag everything that I had touched and smelled before finding the hookah. He added two kilograms of apple tobacco, which he had mixed himself. He squinted a little bit. Then two kilograms more. The transaction was done.
Somewhere between Louis C.K. and the Jordanian hookah man, the church collection plate and the hundred-dollar movie ticket, lies a better scheme than the walls that almost every newspaper in Canada has built around its product in the last few months.
Take The Globe and Mail. The version of their product that rumbles through my Twitter feed is very different than the Globe experience that ends up on my neighbour’s doorstep—or the no man’s land behind the paywall. On Twitter, the reporters are whip smart and unpredictable. Sometimes they’re weird, sometimes neurotic, sometimes conflicted, sometimes deeply hurt, sometimes inspired. It’s like an uneven symphony of a day in the life of Canada. Between those immediate 140-character observations and that other finished product is a staff of editors, who are paid a lot of money to turn a frantic symphony into muzak.
A lifelong reporter at the paper once described the editing system to me as “binary.” A story is either easily understood by a reader or it is not. A Globe editor’s opinion of the reader must be very low. The muzak is steady and predictable. Concerned only with the fact that there is an obvious nut graf, which is repeated in the headline, dek, cutlines and pull quotes. And so the final version, in contrast to the one on Twitter, is incapable of real prescience or anything like a human voice. They’re attempting to sell certainty when those succeeding around them are selling intimacy and a sense that anything can happen if you turn a page or click a link.
It’s a poor formula to make money in this economy. Spend a butt load on good, necessary reporting, which Huffington Post and all the other cold blooded content hijackers plaster up on their websites. Jeff Simpson’s steady wisdom is spruced up with a sassy voice, cut and pasted, framed and reframed, and pushed out through massive social networks to niche and partisan and regional audiences. (Distribution is what these “content generators” do best.) That a reader must now navigate a paywall to read a drabber version on the Globe only makes this e-leeching more lucrative.
Of course, my internal payment mechanism is not so precious to mistake the fact that there can be no raw symphony if I don’t pay for the muzak. However, I am too precious to pay specifically for that muzak And as someone who lives west of Kitchener, trying to get my money’s worth behind that paywall, only reminds me that I’m subsidizing a bunch of reporting about central Canada. The Globe needs to let the audience outside of their geographic and “edited” core pay what it’s worth to them.
Because right now I choose to pay zero.
I feel good about this transaction too. Like I’m sticking it to the muzak editors for ignoring my needs. How would you get me to pay more than zero?
Consider the night at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, when comedian Mike Daisey gave his entire fee for a show to the audience, and asked him to pay it back to him afterwards—based on what they felt it was worth. He earned back the entire sum plus $1,169. The Globe could charge me five bucks a month for the content, immediately credit it back to my account, empowering me to give it back based on what I use. If the Globe really wanted to engage me, they’d credit a few cents back to my account if I wrote something worthwhile in the comment section or enthusiastically tweeted a link.
Alternatively, I’d spend two bucks a month for a bundle of the stuff I actually want to read. Unedited “extended drafts” by Stephanie Nolen, Mark McKinnon, Simon Houpt, Alexandra Gill, Gary Mason, Sunny Dhillon, David Ebner’s kooky sports writing—there are more than a dozen bylines I’d check off—throw in a weird and engaging piece of long form in the vein of Ian Brown.
I’ve got a couple hundred bucks set aside every month for content, which typically includes a dozen print magazine subscriptions from around the world, several songs a month, some TV, simple beverages, some films, a play, a book or two. What will you give me for it?
- The Shisha Exemption
- Frugal Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry
- Why We Urgently Need Lemonade Stands
- Smoky Arabic Eyes for Japanese Girls
- The Improbable Campaign of North America’s First Muslim Mayor
- The Unifying Power of Army Surplus
- Drinking At Ikea
- How Camel Toe Became Yoga’s Most Profitable Pose
- 7 Forms of #MuslimRage
- On Gardening and Inoperable Brain Tumours
- How to do a Jesus Year
- The Original Star Wars Berber Costume Hack
- Growing Moustaches and Buying Carpets in Istanbul
- Lessons From The Whirling Dervish
*Part of this essay was published in Marketing magazine.