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Pay to … Pay? What Internet Experiments Like Expensive Chat Teach Us About the Consumer-Tech Relationship

How would your smartphone usage change if you had to pay every time you picked up your phone? Would you text less if you were charged by the letter? Some web entrepreneurs are toying with the concept of pay-to-play access to technology.

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One of the rumors the internet cannot outrun is that someday, Facebook is going to charge users a fee to access it. Every few years, the news resurfaces, and so does the outrage. The social network quickly fills with posts from people protesting the supposed new policy; many vow to delete their accounts entirely. The concept of paying for Facebook—which, for all its faults, is a near essential for some—is too much. Facebook, and much of what lives on the internet, is supposed to be free.

There is a corner of the web, though, that asks users to pay for access to very specific, limited experiences. These projects aren’t internet tools; they’re commentaries on the consumer-technology relationship. How would a person’s relationship to web apps change if they chose to pay for them? And when so much of the internet is free … why would they? Internet publishers contemplating a paywall are struggling with that question, as the concept that everything on the internet should be free is incredibly deep-rooted. But maybe pay-to-play (or, pay-to-pay) apps and experiments will start to make a dent in that mentality.

This past October, Thinko Entertainment launched an app called Who Paid 99 Cents, wherein users paid—you guessed it—99 cents to discover who else had done the same as well as how much money had been raised. The project, which began as a joke the night before, went viral. The internet (or at least a corner of it on Twitter, where links to the site rapidly multiplied) wanted to know who had paid 99 cents. “I think people pay because they want to show their friends something funny they did and laugh about it together,” Thinko partner Pasquale D’Silva told me over email at the time. He would not divulge to me how much money Who Paid 99 Cents had made (I didn’t cough up 99 cents), but said “it raised about as much as I think a funny internet gag would get.” All the money will go back into Thinko to fund future projects. Pasquale says he saw Who Paid 99 Cents as a marketing experiment more than anything else, and that the day of work it took Thinko to make the app was well worth it for the exposure it brought. The experiment is still being passed around Twitter, though the hype obviously has died down.

Who Paid 99 Cents was far from the first weird internet money experiment. The Million Dollar Homepage, conceived in 2005 by Alex Tew, was a notable predecessor. Each pixel on the page cost $1, and for that price, a buyer could put a link and image of their choice. Tew ended up making more than $1 million, and inspired future creators to build internet tools that did little more than ask for money and, in return, provide very basic functions, if anything at all. In 2016, developer Marc Köhlbrugge launched highscore.money, a digital scoreboard where the more a person pays, the higher they climb up the board. Each entry includes the participant’s name, a dollar amount (their “score”), and a link to their website. That’s it. “It’s the ultimate pay-to-play game and a nice status symbol,” Köhlbrugge wrote at the time, also calling it a “ridiculous idea.”

In the three years since highscore.money launched, Köhlbrugge has made $2,622. The current high score belongs to “JasonDoesStuff,” with a score (i.e., donation) of 222, or $222. “JasonDoesStuff” is Jason Zook, formerly Jason Sadler. In 2012 and then again in 2013, Zook auctioned off his last name via his project, BuyMyLastName. He was shocked by the response. “My goal was $5,000 or maybe $10,000,” he told me via email. “But when buymylastname.com launched, after 24 hours the bidding went from $0 to $33,000.” Adding the totals from both auctions and deducting expenses (which included donating 10 percent to charity), Zook took home $80,000. Prior to BuyMyLastName, from 2008 to 2013 Zook ran IWearYourShirt, a business in which he wore bidders’ logo T-shirts to advertise for the companies in YouTube videos and social media posts. Zook says it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth month of wearing various shirts (which were priced at $1 per day) that things took off. Popularity peaked in 2010 and 2011, he says. “Getting people to pay felt pretty earned after all the 14-to-16-hour days I put in for nearly two years straight,” says Zook. He ended up taking in $1.2 million from the experiment. But that’s gross revenue—Zook says he ended up in debt just from trying to keep the project afloat.

Despite it all, Zook remains a fan of digital ideas with a quirky financial bent. “I love these creative internet-born projects because they’re so unique and could only be done in this crazy time we live in where attention is a form of currency,” he says. There’s also a joyfulness in the simplicity of the business plan. “You can make money doing literally anything,” says Zook. “You just have to be willing to put effort into your ideas.”

While Zook’s ventures are essentially nods to internet entrepreneurship, other projects are more philosophical. Köhlbrugge of highscore.money recently launched a messaging app called Expensive Chat, where users pay by the letter. So far the big spender is “Little Worker,” who’s paid $19.19 to chat. Some messages are keyboard-mashing nonsense, and others are advertising for other websites or projects. People use Expensive Chat to publicize their businesses, or post their résumés, or promote their Instagram pages. Navigating the ins and outs of social media promotion is an exhausting and ambiguous task. In Köhlbrugge’s creations, the highest bidder rises to the top—until a higher bid comes in and takes the top spot. It’s not all that unlike buying followers on Instagram or Twitter, although it feels less desperate; after all, it’s far more honest to throw money around publicly in order to advertise yourself, or simply just to “win” an arbitrary spot or send a message, than it is to purchase the follows of fake accounts and present them to the world as though they’re real people.

Internet companies like Facebook may not directly charge users, but money still rules these platforms—it’s just hidden below the surface. Zook deleted his Facebook account years ago, but he understands why even a whisper about the site charging for access riles up consumers. While Facebook hasn’t put a price on access, that doesn’t mean there are no costs associated with using the platform. Advertisers and publishers have felt the sting of Facebook’s algorithm changes over the years, and users are gradually realizing they’ve been tricked into paying Facebook in personal data. Then there are attention and time costs, something the digital mindfulness movement is bringing attention to. (An experimental app, EnoughPhoneIsEnough, offers monetary motivation to be mindful: Users pay $0.0003 every time they pick up their phones. The app says 50 percent of the proceeds will go toward “solving an environmental problem.”)

The complete honesty of experiments like Expensive Chat and its ilk is fascinating; these apps flip the consumer-technology relationship on its head. How much users pay is up to them, and the amount isn’t in some unquantifiable currency, like attention or personal information. Now, what exactly users are getting for their money might be … well, not much, or even nothing. But transparency is a rare commodity on the internet, and apparently one some people think is worth paying for.