Microsharing – a future we’re ignoring?*

Today, in an attempt to get people talking about something I’ve been mulling over for a while, I had thought I accidentally invented an awful new word: Microsharing

Luckily,  I hadn’t.

Some chap called Tony Obregon (I’m guessing this  Tony Obregon) did the hard work slapping it up on Wikipedia back in 2006.

However, I’m slightly miffed we haven’t got around to talking about it from the perspective of making money from content until 2011. Hopefully, this post gets the ball rolling.

So to microshare is:

…to offer access to a select piece or set of digital content by a specific group of invited or otherwise privileged guests in a controlled and secure manner.

So, why does it interest me?

Well, in what was a glorious example of perfect linkbait keyword combos, a VC chap named Bradford Cross recently put across his view on how the iPad would destroy print journalism.

Most of what he was saying has been said a million times before, but when Bradford starts thinking about how payment models might integrate with the social web it suddenly gets interesting:

What should I be able to do with that Economist article?  Should I be able to share it à la carte so I can discuss it with the people I want?  Should I be able to share it within my network, or within the intersection of my network and the network of paying Economist subscribers?

Should I be able to share it publicly?  Maybe I could share it with a special shortened link that encapsulates a special key – that key could charge me if I share it with my friends and I want them to read it, or it could charge the clicker of the link if the Economist decides to allow à la carte payment on some new kind of media platform.

This is the first time I’ve seen anyone think beyond the “if it’s not free it can not be shared on the social web” line… and I’ve been looking out for someone to do it for quite a while!

In real life humans are perfectly capable, and generous enough, to purchase something of value to them and then to loan or give it to someone they care about, trust, or share an interest with. It’s a nice thing to do. We feel good about it, especially when we loan something to someone who finds it really valuable too.

However, with the social web this doesn’t happen. Shared stuff is either free and shared with everyone or it’s paid for and can be shared with no one (unless they too feel compelled to pay for it).

Why the difference, if paying for stuff doesn’t stop us sharing it in real life? Perhaps the social web hasn’t yet evolved to a point where we can share like this as easily as we do in real life?

I think it might be rather nice to have something in the middle: a “licensed sharing of paid-for content“. I think it might even create another strata of the online gift economy.

The trick, however, is to find a way to do it that moves beyond voucher codes and limited previews and puts the power to share in the hands of the person who has paid.

I like the idea of integrating with an existing network then defining the people you want to send the content too (much like you would send an link out to a group in an email). I’m told, however, this is may be too laborious.

So I’m wondering what you think? Do we need it? If so, what form do you think it could take?

*Or, following the Bradford Cross school of post titling: “Why microsharing will destroy the future… OF EVERYTHING”

**And Kindle have on this very day announced book lending – microsharing in action! 🙂

19 thoughts on “Microsharing – a future we’re ignoring?*

  1. Where is the incentive, to the subscriber, to use microsharing, over simply cutting ‘n’ pasting into an e-mail, or, say, Tumbler or Posterous?

  2. Hi Andy!

    It would only work if the microsharing solution made it simpler for the majority of users to share that way that to copy and paste.

    The only example I can think of at the moment is: why use Spotify when you can download torrents for almost every song you might ever want?

    I guess having integration into your social network would mean you could share with folk without having to know (or remember, or look up) their email address. 🙂

  3. Agree in principle with Andy’s point. I think that people (particularly my early 20something generation) are all too used to the culture of free and the boons that it provides. That ranges from frivolities discussed on facebook to academic stuff like TED talks and Oxford University podcasts that are freely downloadable.

    There are obvious examples where people have been given the option to pay or go free (Radiohead’s album sale) and they’ve chosen the paid option. Whether that can be applied to the wider social web is another matter. There’s something about the free exchange of information, the very essence of a social web, that jarrs quite heavily with any notion of paid for content in my opinion.

  4. I think my point is that things that take off on the web either let you do something more quickly or more easily—I think there’s something in this, but any way in which you have to do more work to define a network or pick individuals is more difficult at the moment that illegally copying.

    Within an existing network would be fine, but only closed social networks can offer that functionality. It’d be pretty easy to circumvent (everyone become FB friends with me and (‘ll share Catilin Moran’s Times column every week, for example) and would be a sort of mechanical turk-RSS perhaps.

    I’ve been thinking about the offline sharing and it rests on a more nuanced relationship than the online—whether I’ll buy you a present, lend you a favourite book, lend you a non-favourite book, copy a CD or let you borg my mp3 collection depends on how much I like you (even if the last two cost nothing but time, and the other two only involve a proportion of risk).

    I don’t know what the answer is, I suspect it might be halfway between a tech solution and a social-web-language/literacy.

    In effect the adding—by some on Twitter— of £ symbols before links to paywalled Times content is a step towards it. It is still sharing in the social web sense, even if the “network” is reduced to those in the wider network who have subscriptions.

    But it’s not solving the problem of sharing “paid for” content. Time or access limited DRM on media content might work for multi-use media (music, films, books), but for read-once? Something else is needed.

    It’s interesting.

  5. @Joseph I see your point. I’m thinking this wouldn’t be an alternative to the free web, more an addition. It may be that many people will never value in monetary terms anything that they have previously had the chance to consume for free.

    I think the point still applies though. Surely there must be something that you can conceive of that could be both digital _and_ valuable? How would the social web accommodate that?

  6. @Jon Bounds This takes things slightly off topic a bit but I’m not sure I agree with you about the “£” sign.

    I think perhaps it at best it is an annoying usability issue that mediates another slightly more annoying usability issue.

    At the moment, as people may not know where the link is going (and therefore whether they have a subscription), it’s really just a leper’s bell. Also, it won’t tell you, if you land on a site that has some form of meter system, whether you’re going to get the article or a signup page…

  7. It’s late, I’m knackered and this is only a half thought-out thought but gym memberships come to mind.

    They want to sign up all those not prepared to go to the free or cheap offerings elsewhere, who want a better standard of gym equipment and classes, etc.

    Once they have you signed up, you are offered a range of optional extras. So for example for an extra £5 a month you can bring up to four friends along up to four times a month.

    Or those without gym member friends can get a one-off guest pass but only if they havn’t been before.

    it is in the gym’s interest to offer some free or cheap restricted access with the idea that they will get hooked on the good stuff and pay for a subscription.)

    How does this work in a microsharing case – no idea! ISP addresses? Nominated ‘friends and family’?

    I go bed now.

  8. I like the general concept of microsharing, subject to the mechanism employed to achieve it. It seems that there could be many options, some more technical than others. I’d like to hear about the particular elements of those, although that would be a subject for a separate post.

    @ Andy. People used to tweet share links to The Times (picking them as an example for obvious reasons). People don’t now copy/paste articles as you suggest and send them on. Maybe it happens, but I’d question to what extent. If there was a way to edge back towards easily permitting that previous behaviour then I’d see the merit in it.

    @ Joseph. I don’t believe that ‘culture of free’ stuff. For starters, the internet contains plenty of perfectly good, sustainable paid content networks. You may not be a member of one, but (to expand my point) you’ve paid for something online, have you not? I’d suggest that plenty of people are used to parting with cash online. And not just cash – you’re not naive enough to think that you’re not giving some sort of value to Facebook, are you? In the latter case, just because you’re not handing over money doesn’t mean you aren’t part of a transaction. TED are selling you to Intel/ BMW/whoever too.

    @ bounder. I’d challenge you on the nuances of sharing online v offline. One might tweet any old crap generally but send particular links to particular people (content that may not be of interest to your general twitter/Facebook crowd). I broadly agree with many of your points.

    As a general query, would the adoption of microsharing represent the adoption of an inefficiency of physical products?

    And nice to see a post here. I’d almost forgotten you existed!

  9. @Margot I think maybe your’s is an example of how it’s less nuanced really, the options are limited to “share to all” or “share to individuals (or defined groups)” — offline each transaction can have a decision all of it’s own, and there’s risk involved in some transactions, which is why trust is important.

    @Joanna the link itself is indication of where it’s going and whether you have a sub/what limited access you have left, kind off. I agree that it’s clumsy.

  10. @ bounder. I don’t agree that the same nuances that apply to offline sharing should not apply to online sharing. I think how that’s done is the clever thing that perhaps Joanna would like to discover – this middle ground of ‘licensed sharing of paid-for content’. I would agree with you that such a system would benefit from an emphasis on speed and ease.

    I also don’t agree that the sharing options are as limited as you suggest. For your offline examples, I could substitute the following online:
    *Buy you a subscription
    *Give you my username and password (changing the password the next day)
    *Send you a type of link that will expire in a week
    *Copy and paste articles into an email
    *Let you share in the use of my username

    There’s risk involved in some of them and trust required too.

    To the extent that the options are limited to ‘share to all’ or ‘share to individuals’ there’s still room for a world of nuance in the type of content I’m sharing with which people and the reasons why. What I mean to say is that nuance can be expressed by the message, not just the delivery mechanism.

    @ Joanna. I agree with you regarding the £ sign. The analogy of the leper’s bell was amusing but really in my case it’s because I’m not a fan of cluttering Twitter with yet more jargon. I appreciate most of these things are inventive ways of coping with the 140 character limit, but some of the contractions can be quite baffling. An old dog doesn’t like learning new tricks.

  11. Enjoyed the discussion on this very much on Twitter yesterday, so great to see your thoughts on this crystallised and expanded-upon here. Thanks! 🙂

    As ever with these things, all I can offer here is what makes sense to me as a user, so very much personal opinion/preference rather than authoritative intelligence of any kind. It is sort of getting into territory I was trying to express in a blog post a while back about how rights holders need to stop thinking like content providers and start thinking about service providers if they’re really going to tackle piracy, (see http://bit.ly/eWo6pq ). So here is my own half-bakedness on this one …

    Hear what you’re saying about sharing in the real world being confined to certain people you trust etc but the difference here is that real-world sharing usually involves actually giving away a physical thing you have bought and paid for (hopefully temporarily). With digital sharing your ownership is still retained and guaranteed, but a perfect copy is shared. So there is no risk to the user, only to the rights holder. Hence the problem – and hence the need to offset this risk/cost to them by introducing some sort of comparative ‘risk’ to the user – be it additional charges if it is shared beyond a closed or limited group or whatever

    @andy @joseph
    I agree with @margot’s points that there are numerous highly successful models that prove that paid-for content can work when the service is right, (iTunes being the screamingly obvious one). This is not about whether or not people will pay for digital content – some will, some won’t – but it’s more about what level of service do those who *have* paid want and expect for their buck? Personally speaking, I don’t want something I have paid for to come with more restrictions or offer me a lesser service than something I’m getting for free – and the music industry DRM fiasco is a great example of this, (I just wish other content industries would look and learn). If people pay for something then it’s not unreasonable for them to feel that *they* own it, not the rights-holders, so they expect to be able to do whatever the hell they want with it on whatever device they want, with whoever they want, wherever they want. Anything less is an advert for piracy. So – actually – the fact that I *can’t* share links on, say, The Times, (sorry, Jo!), without knowing my friends and followers have to pay to read them is – to me – a disincentive for sharing and also a disincentive for subscribing. It is a service I would want to use – and, actually, would be (marginally) happier to pay for

    I totally agree with a lot of what you were saying yesterday – and alluded to on here – about avoiding clumsiness. Again, it’s all about service. This shouldn’t be any more difficult or clumsy to set up than hitting a ‘share’ button, (which is also why I think the whole cut-n-paste thing into Tumblr is a workaround, but not a solution). As a user, I don’t want to be thinking about setting up pre-defined groups or having to use Facebook (although that’s very much a personal thing!), partly because it’s hassle, but also because it’s contextual. Like any other human being, I’d like to think I contain multitudes, so may at any given time read and want to share an article about anything from documentary filmmaking to Italian opera to neuroscience to football or comics. Should I have to create a subset of my friends and followers for every conceivable interest? Or should I just be able to click a button, post a link and whoever is interested in that particular topic can go get it – with perhaps a time or number limit to satisfy the rights holders? I think the latter.

    Finally, there’s the issue of incentives. I think @marcreeves may have alluded to this yesterday and – as ever – he’s right on the money. The irony of rights holders barring sharing is that it’s cutting off their nose to spite their face – there are clear advantages in viral discovery and what this means about increased user acquisition. So where the content is paid for, rather than being discouraged, it should be incentivised so it doesn’t depend entirely on the altruism of the paid subscriber. Perhaps some kind of individual affiliate type tracking whereby there is a kickback or account credit for any of the subscriber’s follow who click on their links and go on to subscribe themselves? Or – in my fantasy dreamworld where rights holders and publishers freely integrate with open web stuff that they don’t own – perhaps a Flattr button that allows those who have clicked on the links to show their appreciation to the subscriber in a single click?

    See? Told you this was going to be half-baked. But there’s definitely something in this microsharing idea, methinks. And you’re right, Jo … should have been teased out and discussed long ago.

  12. I think that’s a great idea Joanna, something that I’m sure could be developed along the lines of the tynt model the Daily Mail, among others, employ.

  13. Great piece Joanna.

    As another young buck used to getting everything for free, I agree with @joseph that it will be a shock to the system. The bigger issue, I think, is whether it will affect how well read we are.

    People like to read, quite casually, articles that interest them on the web – they might read the intro or half and get something from it (or not). They do this because they can and it’s cheap.

    Microsharing (correct me if I’m wrong) suddenly makes this kind of dipping in and out a bit harder because, if you’re not willing to pay for it, reading said piece relies on you knowing someone who has paid for it and would share it with you.

    Is this a potential fallout of microsharing or has the idea of it scrambled my brain?

  14. Catching up on this a bit belatedly. I like the concept, and appreciate a lot of the summary and refinement in Jason’s comment. Here and on yesterday’s Twitter discussion that seemed to tend towards a mechanic something like this:

    1. You can share your paid for content to all your ‘followers’ and the first X to click the link get the content ‘free’.

    2. Anyone who follows the link and pays for the content credits your ‘microshare’ account with a kick-back. You can use this to buy (and share) more content.

    This feels like a nice simple mechanic that makes it easy to share, and makes the user feel better about paying for the content in the first place. Is it easier than cutting and pasting? Perhaps marginally, once you commit to an account. I think that most people have a slight preference for doing things the legit way, so long as the price/convenience point is acceptable. Or maybe that’s just me.

    Forgive me for trying to nail down a mechanic prematurely rather than engaging with the more interesting parts of the discussion. It’s a force of habit.

  15. @Jake Not premature at all! I’m pretty convinced it’s something that could work and I’m interested to pin down the mechanic too. 🙂

  16. @Jake Turning readers into affiliates in that way is interesting – might encourage more sharing too. Although if it cost me ‘credits’ or whatever I’d want to share things with specific people who might take a subscription, rather than people who spend all day watching Twitter. (I realise I’m getting ahead of myself here).

    Have y’all come across http://headliner.fm? A slightly different approach but they’re working to enable something comparable.

  17. @jake looks like you nailed it in a far more succinct way than I managed, Jake, so no problems there whatsoever. As for it being premature, I refer my esteemed colleague to Jo’s original post re that Wikipedia entry from way back in 2006. So, far from being premature, it’s actually long overdue 😉

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