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The Asking Economy

August 15, 2015

In building a website, there are the big things, the things most people imagine when they think of web development: coding, designing logos, getting servers configured, and so on. But the small, trivial things that we sometimes forget are often the ones that end up "completing" the website, beyond it being just a collection of HTML pages somewhere on the Internet. And one of those small, trivial items on my checklists each time is designing and making a favicon*. It's literally one of the smallest things you can do to a website (often a 16 by 16 pixel icon) with barely any detail), but without it, the professionality and production quality of a website drops. But a favicon isn't just a typical image file like JPGs or GIFs that you find off of your camera, it's a different type of an image file that requires it to be built slightly differently. And to that end, there's a tool I use literally every time I need to make a favicon called, aptly, Favicomatic. It's a completely free web application that converts a single icon into dozens of compatible icon images and formats for multiple different devices and screens. In simpler, non-techie terms, it's an awful lot of help and a huge time saver every time I use it.

Fortunately, it's a free tool that allows anyone with an idea and the skills to access it. But just above the menus and the text boxes on the website, there is a donation button with the picture of a cup of espresso next to it, encouraging users to contribute just a little bit for the tool they're using for free, and the time and effort they save.

The curious thing is, if I set up a brick-and-mortar store and started giving away my products for free with the "option" of customers to pay to show their appreciation, it would be a completely insane thing to do -- literally no business has this approach offline, because it just doesn't work. Costs are too expensive, and profits can't be made with donations for running a free-product business.

But the situation is radically different online. Many pieces of software I use every single day both for convenience and for critical, day-to-day work are completely free, both in advertising revenue and in what I pay for it, but I've donated to a handful of them because I think the value I get from using those free services is worth the money, and I want to show support for those creators to keep developing and building the tools that I use. But this kind of approach doesn't stop there. A more well-known example might be Patreon, a service that allows independent creators on the web (frequently YouTube) to give out unique content to their supporters in exchange for small, monthly donations that keep their free, primary stream of videos and other works going. In both of these cases, people aren't paying for the benefit of having access to software tools and videos -- it's the other way around. People are paying to support these creators, without being required to. It's definitely not a new thing -- donations have been around forever -- but it's happening at scale with the Internet, and it is a notable positive shift. It's a shift that's proven to be a stable and reliable source of income for many creators, and a satisfying way to support people who do great things for many more.

In an Asking Economy, the value that creators provide users is the most, well, valuable, asset. The spotlight moves from the paying consumers to the creators. (photo credit: Negative Space)

But here's a wild proposition: what if we take that philosophy of running a business -- taking compensations for value rather than enforcing charges for them -- and scaled it up to an entire economy? It might not be a very practical scenario, but for the sake of an exciting hypothesis, here's my picture of an economy not based on taking the return of our work, but on asking for support -- what I'd like to call the Asking Economy.

Traditional business, the kinds with whom we interact every day, are built on profit, the idea of taking some compensation for the value they provide. But the Asking Economy doesn't focus on the profit, but instead on the value provided. The profit is just a perk on the side, and the priority changes. In other words, in the traditional way of businesses, the customers provide profit in the hope of a value in return. But in the Asking Economy, the creators provide a positive value in the hope of a profit. Things with value -- funny videos, learning opportunities, books, software, etc. -- aren't the things being traded for, but the thing itself being traded. And in that way, the value of a service or product from a business becomes the ultimate currency. Value becomes more valuable, and the focus moves from the consumers -- those paying for the profits made -- to the creators -- those who actually produce the value people want. We take out currency as the middleman of trading valuable services and goods.

In the Asking Economy, the value of a service or product from a business becomes the ultimate currency. Value becomes more valuable, and the focus moves from the consumers to the creators.

Of course, no scenario is without faults, and a straightforward objection to this kind of a system is the idea that people can steal and hoard money freely. Yes, there's some credibility to that idea, but in this hypothetical economy based on directly providing value rather than paying for them with currency, there's also little incentive for anyone to steal currency.

The Asking Economy, in essence, is an economy that operates without currency, with the altruistic vision of giving our work out to the rest of the society for free. Individuals and businesses who don't get income won't need them, because they also won't experience any costs or payments.

The scenario breaks down when we apply it to the real-world circumstances in scale, for obvious reasons -- lack of motivation for everyone to work for no compensation, and so on. But these types of scenarios do exist in much smaller scales, in communities ranging from dozens of millions of people to hundreds. The breakpoint doesn't come until the scale hits the order of magnitude of hundred millions.

Take Wikipedia, for example. Every single contributor to Wikipedia's growing repository of free information is participating in the micro-system of Wikipedia's Asking Economy. Those who contribute do so without compensation, but instead of monetary return, they get free access to a library of information orders of magnitudes larger than what they provided. The same goes for images and writing licensed under the Creative Commons licenses, as well as the previously mentioned examples of free software and supporter-backed content creators. Their businesses persist because creators of value -- YouTube creators, developers, photographers, and writers -- provide some value in exchange for more value in return from the rest of the community, rather than receiving monetary compensation.

Their businesses persist because creators of value -- YouTube creators, developers, photographers, and writers -- provide some value in exchange for more value in return from the rest of the community, rather than receiving monetary compensation.

And if it hansn't been obvious enough yet, this new kind of a micro-economy survives because of the ability of the Internet to connect and form these supportive communities. Passion and support in these communities drive these Asking Economies above the collapsing point, and in fact grow them into the vibrant, huge resources we have today. I'm not so naïve as to think this kind of a community can exist at a national scale, anytime soon, but the smaller, online communities depending on this philosophy hasn't shown any sign of slowing down yet. It's a shift in how we find and provide value as creators and consumers, and we're at the center stage of that historic shift.

* A favicon is the small icon you see in or above your address bar, typically icons for a bookmark in the "favorites" menu of a browser (hence the name).