Reality Sandwich is facing financial difficulties that
threaten its continued publication. That's not because of dull content, nor
failure to connect with an audience. On the contrary: it's an edgy, relevant,
and provocative publication with some very talented (ahem!) writers, but what
it doesn't have is what they call a "monetization" scheme. And in this, it is
not alone.

How to monetize digital content? This is a question facing
everyone from Rupert Murdoch, the record labels, and the movie studios, all the
way down to Reality Sandwich and the lone blogger. You see, fundamentally the
marginal cost of production for digital content is near zero, which drives the
price toward zero as well. Fixed costs may be quite high, but once those are
paid it doesn't cost much more to serve a million readers than it does a
hundred.

Like most websites, Reality Sandwich offers its content for
free. How, then, to meet operating expenses? Various possible solutions include
charging for access (remember Encarta?), walling off special "premium" content,
relying on advertising, associating real-world pay services with on-line
content, and asking for donations. I think that, with the exception of certain
niche applications, only the last of these has any real future.

What I am saying here is that the only business model that
makes sense for most digital content is the model of the gift: to offer it as a
gift, and to receive gifts in turn.

Primitive economies were wholly gift economies, which was
natural when each consumer was also a producer. Today, the dominant model for
profit-making business is to control scarce resources and sell their produce,
or the resources themselves, to people who need them. The earliest example of this
was the control of land. In early times, when land was not the subject of
property, it was very difficult for one person to become significantly richer
than another, simply because the source of all wealth was equally available to
all. Unable to compel the labor of others, our primary means of economic
circulation was the gift.

When, as in Roman times, land ownership concentrated in the
hands of the few, the many were cut off from the once-abundant source of all
wealth, the land. The conventions of property made land artificially scarce,
and the landless had to sell their labor and surrender their freedom just to
survive.

Since then, scarce resources have, one after another, fallen
under private control, while many resources that were once abundant have been
made scarce. It is hard to make someone pay for something that they can easily
procure themselves. The quintessential example is water, perhaps the most
abundant substance on the planet, but made scarce today through our our
separation from nature and the pollution and chemical treatment of the water
supply. As a result, bottled water has been the number one beverage growth
category over the last two decades.

Water is inherently abundant because of its inexorable
tendency to recycle, to flow downhill and return to its source. The same
dynamics apply to another resource equally vital to the human species:
information, by which I mean the sum of human invention, culture, story, and
art. Drawing from the reservoir of the ideas that surround us from birth, we
fashion yet new creations which flow back into that reservoir to enrich it
still further. Yet the media has found a way to bottle it up and sell it back
to us.

The question, in the Age of Money, has been how to profit
from something abundant, because that which is abundant falls naturally into
the realm of gift. In the modern era, it has been possible to profit from the
control of information because the means of its gathering and dissemination
required significant capital. To run a newspaper or record company required a
vast coordination of labor. To mass-produce vinyl records or newspapers
required an investment beyond the reach of most people, allowing producers to
maintain scarcity. They were aided by copyright laws that prevented
unauthorized replication, which would have compromised that scarcity. But today
the inherent abundance of information is reasserting itself.

With the Internet today, we again have a situation in which
the source of (at least a certain kind of) wealth is equally available to all,
and again in which the distinction between producer and consumer blurs. Less
and less is it possible to compel people to pay for music, for news, for
software, and for many other items of cultural wealth. Websites that charge for
access go the way of Encarta, and I think that recent plans by Rupert Murdoch
and The New York Times to put their content behind pay walls will prove just as
disastrous. If you are trolling the web and hit a pay wall, you will probably
just go somewhere else to find similar content for free. Why should I pay to
read the NYT, when I can get more-or-less equivalent news for free elsewhere?
Can the NYT compete with the entire Web? And why should I pay for Microsoft
Office when I can use OpenOffice software, which is just as good, for free?

When something is freely available at zero cost, it is
impossible to charge money for it. That is why music, software, publishing, and
film companies have lobbied so hard for intellectual property protections and
digital rights management technologies. They are essentially trying to impose
artificial scarcity on something that is fundamentally abundant. It has worked,
to some extent, but as the total amount of free digital content expands, the
pay world becomes less and less important and necessary. You can get your news,
your intellectual stimulation, your software, and your entertainment elsewhere.

The financial problems faced by Reality Sandwich are thus
nearly universal. With the exception of highly specialized research firms,
charging for digital content doesn't work, nor does charging for certain
"premium" content as Reality Sandwich tried to do with its Backstage feature.
Five minutes of a particular video would be freely available, but if you wanted
to see the whole thing you'd have to pay for Backstage. The problem was that,
although the content was quite good, there is plenty of other great content for
free elsewhere. Moreover, this approach essentially boils down to, "I could
give you this at virtually no cost to myself, but I'm withholding it until you
pay me," It feels like extortion, and I think I am not the only one turned off
by it. I suspect that the people in charge of the site were turned off by it
too, but proceeded out of a feeling of necessity. They need to meet their operating
expenses somehow! Fortunately, it now appears that Reality Sandwich is
abandoning this idea and moving more fully toward a gift paradigm.

The third approach I mentioned, advertising, is also subject
to severe limitations. The first limitation is the ability of the scarce-goods
economy to support advertising. The second is that the Internet's ability to
foster peer-to-peer connections is eroding the value of advertising, along with
all other forms of intermediation. Just as the Internet has decimated the
professions of stockbroker and travel agent, Craigslist has, according to
one estimate
, destroyed $100 billion of classified ad revenue over
the last ten years. And whereas once producers needed advertising to make
consumers aware of their products, we can now find them ourselves with an
Internet search. Finally, our capacity to take in advertising has nearly been
saturated. When nearly every blank surface and empty moment, whether on a bus,
in a theater, or at a sporting event, is filled with advertising, we become
inured to it, and the effectiveness of all advertising suffers from diminishing
marginal utility. Don't get me wrong — I am not proclaiming the demise of
advertising (I am an optimistic person, but even my optimism knows limits!). I
am suggesting, rather, the advent of Peak Advertising, and a long, slow decline
to follow. The parallel with Peak Oil is nearly exact: in both cases, a vast
commons — in this case, the commons of our collective attention — has been
exhausted. In any event, when even YouTube with its tens of millions of daily
users is unable to break even with ad sales, the prospects for Reality Sandwich
in that regard are dim indeed.

A fourth approach is to piggyback value-added services onto
free content. This is what bands are doing when they give away music in hopes
of increasing concert ticket sales. Software companies do the same when they
give away software and charge for technical support or consulting. Reality
Sandwich does this by offering teleseminars and retreats. While this is a valid
strategy, I think in the case of Reality Sandwich the value lies more in its
synergy with the site's mission and purpose than with any financial
contribution, since it is hard to make significant amounts of money from such events.
Moreover, teleseminars, online classes, and so forth suffer from the same
dilemma of making people pay for something that has a zero marginal cost.
Unless there is one-on-one interaction happening, it doesn't matter how many
people are listening. It is a broadcast model, and the production cost is the
same whether one person or a hundred are listening.

That leaves voluntary donations — the model of the gift —
which I believe is the only model for digital content that is viable in the
long run. Reality Sandwich is moving in that direction with the
pay-what-you-like subscription to the Evolver Social Movement
. The gift model
is quite natural for digital content. In the age of paper, vinyl, and other
physical media that demanded physical distribution and incurred significant
unit costs, it was both possible and to some extent justifiable to charge money
for cultural creations. But today, the medium has nearly dematerialized, and
the unit cost to deliver digital content has dropped to nearly zero. This dematerialization
means that no depletion is incurred by giving something away. No matter how
many copies of my book or recordings people download from my website, my store
of them is not depleted thereby. Supply is infinite; therefore, according to
the law of supply and demand, the natural price point is zero.

What, then, shall induce me to produce such content in the
first place? It is the same thing that motivates Reality Sandwich's creators
and the creators of innumerable other websites that are contributing to the
Great Turning that is underway today. It is the desire to give of our gifts in
order to create a more beautiful world. While this website's creators may have
had notions of launching a successful media enterprise, and may have
incorporated those notions into various business plans to seek investment, I
think their true motivation was that they wanted to give something new and
important to the world. Such is the motivation of any true artist, and when a
person betrays his art and subordinates it to the goal of pecuniary gain, the
result is an obvious sellout. It is time for this website's creators to fully
embrace the gift paradigm, for it is aligned with the true spirit behind what
they have created. Part of this embrace would be to release all of the
Backstage content to all readers. Another part would be, in addressing
investors, to say, "The purpose of this enterprise is to contribute to the
evolution of the human species. You will receive no financial return on your
investment, but we promise to treat your contribution as sacred."

I have found that the more I step into the spirit of the
gift, the more the world responds in kind. When we witness true generosity —
giving without any agenda except that the gift be received — we are moved to
generosity ourselves, and when we are the recipient of a gift we are moved to
gratitude. Accordingly, as the producers of this website step more fully into
owning and enacting their true motives, its readers will step in to support it.
All of us desire to contribute to what I call "the more beautiful world our
hearts tell us is possible." So, I would like invite this website's readers to
respond in kind to Reality Sandwich's embrace of gift principles. I would very
much like to be part of an explicitly "gift-based media enterprise". While it
costs a lot of money to produce this website, your particular copy costs
nearly nothing. There is thus no justification to make you pay. But if you feel
grateful for what is provided here, then act on that gratitude and give.

Like many artists, I feel uncomfortable selling my work,
because any amount I charge seems at once too much and too little: too much,
because it is sacred to me and I desire to give it without condition; too
little because to put a price on the sacred devalues it, turning the infinite
into something finite. Many of us prefer to offer our work as a gift, and that
means contributing to publications that operate on gift principles themselves
(if their main goal is profit, then we feel taken advantage of). Reality
Sandwich is a website in which the spirit of the gift is blossoming. It is
about launching (or, to be more modest, helping to accelerate) a social
movement. They call it the "Evolver social movement," but of course it extends
far beyond this site. Ken, Daniel, Jonathan et al have merely named it, yet
names can be a powerful way to crystallize attention, to bring what was
unconscious into consciousness.

Part of the shift in human consciousness that is underway
today is a transition to a different kind of economy, an economy that applies
the principles of the gift to a modern technological environment. I am writing
a book, Sacred Economics, to create a vision and a vocabulary to speed
this transition. Yet writing about economics, I feel totally at home at a
website that also includes articles on ayahuasca, crop circles, the prison
system, dream psychology, and so on. To me the link is clear: all of these
topics are like gift mentality in contributing to a reversal of the ideology of
Separation, and the corresponding sense-of-self that has increasingly dominated
our civilization for thousands of years. For the discrete-and-separate self,
inhabiting an objective universe, more for you is less for me. This is the self
of usury. In a gift society, that maxim is no longer true; instead, more for
you is more for me, because I know that if you have more than you need,
you will give the surplus to someone who needs it. In this very simple way, we
become connected; I wish for your good as you wish for mine, and do unto you as
I would have you do unto me. Foretold thousands of years ago, the Golden Rule
is the truth of the coming age.

Today we are transitioning into a time that realizes the
truth of the connected self, in which not only my well-being, but my very
existence, my very being-ness, depends on the well-being and indeed the
existence of all other beings on the planet. I am merely describing the
economic dimension of the truth of interbeingness. That same truth is also what
moves us to compassion for prisoners; it can be experienced directly in
psychedelic states; it manifests in the eerie connections between the crop
circles and our own minds. To move fully to a gift model would bring the form
of this website into alignment with its content.

The common thread that ties this website together is the
feeling that we are awakening to a much more wonderful world, something
magical, something mind-blowing. We want our minds to be blown because we are
done with the Age of Separation and the small, isolated self that inhabits it.
It is time for this social movement to begin in earnest.

Let us hope and hold for this website that it let go of any
residual, unconscious motivations of profiting from the readers, which is the
old media model, and open up fully to the spirit of the gift. It is happening —
it must happen, for there is really no other way. And let us hope and
hold that its readers respond in kind, with generosity and forgiveness, and
take Reality Sandwich another step forward as a cocreated, gift-based catalyst
for the evolution of human beingness.

 

To join the Evolver Social Movement and make a contribution to Reality Sandwich, click here

 

Image by MarcinMoga / Lolek, courtesy of Creative Commons license.