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Plexnet, Pecus, & Micropayments

From: Noah Slater <nslater@tumbolia.org>
Date: Sun, 7 Jun 2009 22:27:59 +0100
To: www-archive@w3.org
Message-ID: <20090607212759.GA31591@tumbolia.org>

I have been aware of the Plexnet project for a while, but every time I have
tried to understand more about it, I have felt simultaneously closer and further
away from that goal. I was recently tempted back to the IRC channel, and have
been listening to some interesting conversations about its future.

Tav recommended the following essay:

  He's refined his ideas down over the years and he has one core objective at
  the moment. To monetise the attention and gift economies by creating what he
  calls the Plexnet. Or, in other words, to help people get paid for what
  they're doing out of interest and enjoyment already.

                - http://www.thruflo.com/2009/04/29/its-about-actualisation.html

This really cleared up a lot of confusion for me.

For the first time, I think I may have some grasp on the motivation and goals
behind the Plexnet project. However, there are still huge gaps in my knowledge,
and so the following arguments may be well off the mark.

After reading this essay, it occurred to me that things appear to be heavily
focused on what seems like a vague set of extremely ambitious technical goals.
Moreover, for every area of technical specification that seems impressively
detailed, there appears to be another that is worryingly scant.

Systems design and technology can be fun, so it's easy to see why we might get
distracted with them. But when we focus on them to the exclusion of everything
else, the means become the end. From my limited perspective, it seems like the
project is getting ahead of itself, and that many of the core goals could be
accomplished with a much more modest proposal.

As I see it, the most crucial part of this project is the development of a
successful gift economy micropayment system. This micropayment system is the
driving force behind the community Tav has envisaged; a way for people to
voluntarily thank each other, a way to stimulate and reward creativity, and a
badge of honour that people can wear.

I don't think we need to reinvent the Web, build an application framework, or
design a distributed communication network to accomplish this. I think we can
achieve this with the existing Web.

After doing a bit of reading around micropayments this morning, it seems there
are a few good reasons why the previous attempts have failed. Clay Shirky makes
some interesting points:

  In particular, users want predictable and simple pricing. Micropayments,
  meanwhile, waste the users' mental effort in order to conserve cheap
  resources, by creating many tiny, unpredictable transactions. Micropayments
  thus create in the mind of the user both anxiety and confusion,
  characteristics that users have not heretofore been known to actively seek out.

                - http://www.openp2p.com/pub/a/p2p/2000/12/19/micropayments.html

  Like the salami slicing exploit in computer crime, micropayment believers
  imagine that such tiny amounts of money can be extracted from the user that
  they will not notice, while the overall volume will cause these payments to
  add up to something significant for the recipient. But of course the users do
  notice, because they are being asked to buy something. Mental transaction
  costs create a minimum level of inconvenience that cannot be removed simply by
  lowering the dollar cost of goods.

                           - http://www.shirky.com/writings/fame_vs_fortune.html

However, I think that Shirky is conflating micropayments with the market economy
model they have been used with. Hence, when we swap that out with a gift economy
model, many of these problems should go away.

So, if we were to create a successful gift economy based around micropayments
that promoted the things Tav is interested in, what would it look like in its
simplest workable form?

Some initial ideas come to mind:

  * There would a single website with an explanation of the system, why it
    works, and what it promotes. This website would offer user accounts, and
    would be the central place to manage your Pecu allocation.

  * Accounts can be created to for people, projects, or organisations.

  * Each user account gets a public profile on the main website.

  * Users could send Pecus to each other easily, and without cost. If I send one
    Pecu to you from my account, my Pecu allocation goes down by one and yours
    goes up by one. That simple.

  * Users can buy and sell Pecus using regular currency. This could work in a
    similar fashion to the Second Life currency exchange. Currency exchange
    would be the primary revenue source for Plexnet itself.

  * Transactions can be marked as private or public, and each user account
    profile will show incoming and outgoing transactions marked as public. A
    message can be attached to each transaction.

  * There should be a collection of widgets that people can embed in various
    other places; blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, &c. These widgets could
    come in various forms, but a key aspect would be that they let people
    send Pecus to the owner in the easiest way possible.

  * The widget could implement some form of "one click" payment. If you're
    already signed in to your account then a single click on the widget would
    allocate a single Pecu, without taking you away from the current page.

    If you're not logged in, a modal dialogue could be presented offering you
    the possibility of logging into your account or creating a new one. I am
    thinking primarily of the modal dialogue box that Reddit uses, where
    registering for a new account is almost as easy as logging in.

    For no other reason than being bored of writing, I took some time to
    shamelessly steal a graphic from Ohloh and reappropriate it for a very small
    demo of what one of these widgets could look like:


    For bonus points, the widget would have a count of the Pecus currently
    allocated to the owner. When you clicked on it, and providing you were
    logged in and had "one click" enabled, the allocation count would increment
    by one but leave you on the current page.

  * The widget you wore on your personal site, and the main account profile,
    should be able to show a cumulative total of how many Pecus have been
    allocated to you, even if you have subsequently sold them, i.e. cashed out.
    This could help turn Pecu allocation into a community rating system for
    accounts, as well as a monetary reward.

  * Multiple buckets of Pecu allocation should be possible for a single account.
    I would wear a running total Pecu allocation on my homepage, but each
    individual blog entry would display a total allocated for that entry alone.

  * There should be a lot of focus on cumulative Pecu allocations, and the links
    between accounts within the community of users. My experience from the Open
    Source world shows me that peer recommendation and accolade can be huge
    driving forces for motivation and creativity.

And I think this last point is crucial, and ties back in with the vision that I
understood from reading James Arthur's essay. And I think this could be achieved
without the grand architecture that is currently being talked about. Maybe there
is a place for all that once the system is already established, but I don't
think now is the time to focus on it.


Noah Slater, http://tumbolia.org/nslater
Received on Sunday, 7 June 2009 21:28:37 UTC

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