TL;DR: Wherein I write a web sci-fi story about how I imagine micropayments could work.
For more context, this is kind of a response to David Humphrey's "402: Payment Required" and Joel Dueck's "Payment Required".
Thanks to @alexandrarchivy, @jm3, @humphd, @joeld for taking early peeks at this.
If anything still sounds dumb, it's totally my fault.
No such thing as a free lunch, anymore
The year is 2020. The consumer revolt against tracking & advertising on the web is here to stay.
The fallout has been brutal: Every "one weird trick" and "you'll never believe" viral headline site has evaporated. Nine out of ten daily news sites across all topics & interests have gone under or consolidated. A few favorites have gotten by on a surprise surge of "premium" memberships, but it's a lot quieter on what's left of the web.
Out of nowhere, a new startup bursts onto the scene: "Catbear... The browser so great, we're going to let you pay for it!"
Catbear launches as a subscription service. Five bucks a month in the US - $50 for a year and save! It comes with a wallet you can fill with Catbearcoins. A $5 subscription gives you 1000 Catbearcoins each month.
At least it's not socks
At Christmas, you get a card from a relative you haven't seen in a few years. A gift card falls out - it's worth 2500 Catbearcoins.
"What's this crap?" you think. Curious, you go on the web to redeem it. It turns out you can get a month of Catbear for 2000 Catbearcoins. You shrug & sign up.
Catbear is nice. It's fast. It has clever features. After a night of poking around blogs & games & baby animal pictures, you notice the Catbearcoin balance in the corner of the screen has ticked down to 450.
You follow another link and the balance drops to 449.
After a couple of weeks, your balance runs out. The next link shows an annoying warning: "This page costs 1 Catbearcoin to view," along with a link to top up your wallet at the Catbearstore.
You ignore it and keep browsing on to other free sites - those are getting harder to find.
By the end of the month, Catbear just stops working. It shows a form to reactivate your subscription.
You go back to your old copy of Lodestone Navigator. But, every site wants Catbearcoin now. You bite the bullet: You pull out a credit card and start a Catbear subscription.
Information wants to be expensive
Things are good again. The monthly allowance of 1000 Catbearcoins feeds your habits. But, you've noticed a few places have started asking for more.
Your favorite beer homebrewing forum asks you to bump up to 2 Catbearcoins per view. In exchange, you get a gold border around on your avatar and you can use some fun emoticons in posts. Feeling magnanimous, you agree.
An arcade site asks 50 Catbearcoins to unlock every game for a few hours. The place is pretty fun, so you splurge some nights.
You find a weekly podcast that's 150 Catbearcoins per episode - or 500 per month to subscribe. After listening to some free samples from the archives, you're hooked.
Soon, you find your wallet running out early. You bump your subscription up to $10 and get 2500 Catbearcoins every month. But, with so much good stuff out there, you start using up even that allowance. There are still higher subscription levels, but you decide something's got to give.
The easiest thing to do is just deal with it - when the wallet's empty, you do without the web. You make an effort to budget. But, that's no fun after a few weeks. So, you look into more options.
Turns out you can opt into ads to earn Catbearcoin. You don't like the sound of that, but you give it a try - you can always turn it off whenever you want.
It's not like the old days, though: Ads aren't plastered all over. Instead, Catbear shows you something every now and then between links. Usually it's a quick interstitial image with some text. Occasionally it's a video. Sometimes it's a survey or even a puzzle.
You're surprised at how little you're annoyed - and how often you actually engage. There are other ad services to try: They offer higher payouts, but they feel too intrusive for your tastes.
By the end of the month, you've gotten an extra 750 Catbearcoins. Not terrible, but you keep looking around.
Lots of your usual haunts have started offering some kind of payback scheme for taking on odd jobs. On the homebrewing forum, you notice folks pitching in to help run the place. You can earn Catbearcoin for moderating discussions and weeding out spam.
You apply & get approved - you now have an even more special border around your avatar and you help douse flame wars in a few topics. This nets you about 200 Catbearcoins - plenty to offset your use of this particular site.
Your information wants to be expensive, too
You find yourself writing long reviews & how-tos on the forums. One day, someone snarks that you should start a blog if you're going to keep posting walls of text.
It gets you thinking. You had a TumblJournal, like 10 years ago. You just used it for random GIFs and general life complaints. After a bit of research, you find NileMart's web services: They support blogs and just started accepting Catbearcoin to pay for hosting. What's even more interesting is that they let you accept Catbearcoin!
So, you pick a clever name & create a site. Whenever you're tempted to post a few paragraphs on the forum, you publish to your blog instead and link to it with a TL;DR summary. Come to find out, you really like writing.
Even better, folks from the forums - and beyond - like reading what you've got to say about weird & exotic beers and how to brew them. Word spreads. While NileMart takes a cut of the Catbearcoin flowing your way, you're surprised to find that your balance grows every month.
By the end of summer, you stop paying cash for your Catbear subscription.
You've even totally covered your web habits with plenty left over.
Catbearcoin gets real
Someone on the forums snarks that you must be rolling in it now, thanks to all your fans.
You'd read about it awhile back, but totally forgot until just now: Catbearcoin can be redeemed for cash. In fact, as kind of a reverse subscription, you can have an amount deducted every month and deposited directly into your bank account. So, you set that up.
By the end of the year, your earnings get to a point where you actually have to declare them on your taxes.
You're far from quitting your day job, but your blog buys you a lot of nice beer and a great splurgy dinner here & there.
All of which, you know, is technically research for more writing.
Social media stars rise again
Social media becomes a thing again: It had mostly died when companies & investors realized ad money was drying up.
But, with the advent of Catbearcoin, someone comes up with the idea to share revenues with folks posting little quips & videos. For most users, it's like any old chat site.
For a group of popular folks, the pay out overtakes what they pay in - and suddenly a few stars are making a living from their fans.
You're nowhere near that yourself, but it's good for driving traffic to your blog.
And of course, Catbearcoin isn't the only game in town for long: Gahoo revives the Lodestone Navigator team and unveils their own subscription-free currency. Allen & Gates and Pomegranate both unveil their own browser refreshes & currency offerings. The browser wars start all over again - this time with even banks & credit card networks jumping into the game.
Your cousin is a web developer. She grouses constantly about having to support all these browsers. But, she's never been so in demand.
Exchange services pop up to trade currency between browser wallets. You make a small profit by playing the markets, but you decide it's not really your thing.
Fraud & scams grow - you get bitten more than once. But, Catbear & Lodestone & Sojourn & Trident are all in a race for user protections and offer generous refunds, so it's never really a big problem for you. It's a little annoying to keep up to date with the tech on your site, but NileMart mostly just takes care of it as part of the hosting package.
After a few years, it feels like another dot-com boom - just with fewer billionaires and many more hundred-thousand-aires. Armchair analysts everywhere enjoy the earnings as they weigh in with opinion pieces about when the bubble's going to burst.
You keep writing for your blog. Your traffic grows as you diversify into other beverages & food. You really do quit your day job.
You bring in guest writers - with revenue sharing, of course. They become permanent staff.
You find yourself traveling a bit for exclusive interviews with up-and-coming microbrewers & restaurateurs.
You adopt a cat with huge ears and name her Foxy. She's cute and has her own hilarious microblog - ghostwritten by you. It pays for her kibble.
Life is pretty good on the paid web, even for pets.