Honour among plebes

Otherwise-credible people have, quite inexplicably, become supporters of the so-called honour system, or, in Amazon terms, Honor System™, in which gullible, mawkish readers may daub their eyes and pound keys on their white-label Windows clones (“Thank God I got all the Dave Matthews MP3s before they disappeared”) to donate a few shekels to your struggling indépendantiste Web site. (Amazon will then lovingly extract a pair of fifteens in finder’s fees – 15% of the donation plus 15¢. To cause injury to a site you dislike, donate less than 15¢.)

Andy Wang (a sharp tool – NUblog passim) seems to like the idea:

The financing dried up, Web advertising was not generating enough money, and there were no potential investors in sight. So I did what all good Americans should do in time of need: I begged. [...] Within two days of signing up for the system and publishing an editor’s note asking readers for money, I got $400 in donations. For a moment, I (almost) forgot all the long hours and money I had poured into the site. While the money I was making through the Honor System was nowhere near the amount I have put into the site, I was elated.

And, as Wang goes on to explain (through the mouthpieces of “industry analysts”), honour-system payments are no way to run a railroad, let alone a Web site.

The Honor System, however, is not really a viable way to finance a business. It is primarily useful for a one- time cash infusion, according to [some Republican in a cheap suit], a senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s better than nothing, I suppose,” [the Republican] said. “But it’s not really contributing to a sustaining flow of revenue.”

The true criticism of honour-system payments is their unseemliness. If you run a personal site, either sell out completely (we suggest running titty ads) or operate the thing yourself. Do not hit up your friends for spare change when they come to visit – a small barbarity that actually happened to us once in this thing tautologically known as Real Life.

A group Weblog like Metafilter, which also dallied in honour-system payments, commits at worst a venial sin. The scope of such sites is so much bigger, and so many more visitors would be left in the lurch should your site fall down the chute, that panhandling for a few shekels dedicated to a limited purpose (in this case, a scholarship) is forgivable.

Certainly, for-profit companies, even those struggling with San Francisco–style nouveaux-médias mismanagement, should never appeal for donations. Charities appeal for donations. Either you’re in this for profit or you’re not.

And what nails the coffin shut on honour-system payments? Andrew Sullivan likes them.

“I really didn’t know what to expect, but the enthusiasm from my reader E-mails suggested we’d do well,” Mr. Sullivan said. “The sums we raised gave us leverage to redesign the site and upgrade it so that we can now go to advertisers. I’m determined not to lose money on this thing.”

Here we see echoes of the hubris that smoked headlight covers, neon-ringed license plates, lowrider suspensions, and chainlink steering wheels constitute “real” or “interactive” Web sites. Andrew Sullivan, the writer–celebrity with a taste for adventure and delusions of grandeur, believes that a writer’s site requires the stuffing of Lusitania-sized Java applets down the pipe, all in the service of the humble written word, a medium you actually have to work hard not to communicate in the lingua franca of HTML. And that’s just what he’s doing.

Evidently such honour-system payments will “leverage” sufficient “redesigns” to “go to advertisers” for, say, pharmaceutical slush money.

We note, in the spirit of transparence, that bartering services does not reside in the same universe as asking for money. They don’t call it filthy lucre for nothing.

Posted on 2001-07-25