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How $5 Changed the Way I Read the Internet

What can $5 buy a struggling internet artist?

About a year and a half ago, I decided to quit my most recent day job, live off residuals from a 30-second toothpaste commercial, and write. I spent most of my time consuming blogs so good that their zero-dollar price tag made me feel sad and hopeful at the same time—and not only because I was writing for peanuts, too. My favorite internet writers didn't seem to be aiming for book deals in their memeless Tumblrs. They were creating those kinds of "art for art's sake" essays that I still think of years later with a tongue click and a "daaaammmmn." The one-sided relationships I formed with these unedited online authors—watching their lives unfold in real time, wondering what happened to them after I disconnected—were profound.

Then I got a note from one of those very people, Jon Schwarz of A Tiny Revolution. He wanted to include me in a project he was working on called Five Dollar Friday (#5df). The premise was simple: Every Friday, #5df participants would take $5 from their pockets and award it to a person who had created great free content on the internet.

The feeling of getting paid for what you would gladly do for free is profound. Anyone who has received that first tiny $50 freelancing check knows why this money is a different kind of currency than a week's wages from working the hostess stand at Applebee's. The accumulation of Tumblr likes and notes can almost feel like a spiritual coin purse—everybody likes validation—but a person has to be choosier when they're doling out real money.

That's what made #5df stand out: It represented a real investment, however small, in the volunteer force that makes up our best sources of information and entertainment. If 10,000 people participated in Five Dollar Friday for just one week, we'd have $50,000 to support artists who live mostly on dreams, reblogs, ether, and mp3 giveaways. That figure is probably what one Teen Mom makes per season (are they in the 1 percent yet, at least the ones who get Star magazine covers?). But for someone who isn't sure if what they do is just good enough for mom's fridge or a possible career path, it's a pretty big deal.

My Five Dollar Friday recipients were all writers. I think they know, and think they knew then, how great their content is, but everyone who releases their work into the giant, noisy atmosphere of the internet knows there are days when you feel crummy—that what you do and the parts of yourself you reveal to the web are insignificant and lame. It's nice to think that your gesture of goodwill could reinforce someone's confidence in what he or she does. One of my picks, Caragh, now writes for Hello Giggles, where I hope she gets paid what a radio contest once owed her; another just reluctantly took the mic at a storytelling series, which I wouldn't have missed if it had been in my time zone. Mills Baker, one of my favorite internet writers, wrote a response to #5df that hit me like a check for $500: "Efforts like Five Dollar Friday and Kickstarter demonstrate that just as we have novel methods for cultivating, pursuing, and sharing creativity, we are working towards new methods of rewarding and sustaining those who do."

Five Dollar Friday never caught on the way I hoped it might—after a few months of payments, the experiment slowly faded away. Maybe it wasn't time, or maybe people are wary of PayPal. But it changed the way I thought of myself as a consumer of free media, and I hope that one day it will return with a vengeance. Whether you write your virtual check to a person or entity, it feels good. Look at Wikipedia: Every time I see the site's pleas, I think of a world without Wikipedia and I recoil, turning into a snail whose body would be too soft for a world unshielded by a cloak of open-source information. Volunteering to fund art or music or knowledge feels like the utopian harmony for which we've all been searching—some middle ground between scuzzy-seeming piracy and getting fleeced for Melancholia on video on demand.


What can $5 buy a struggling internet artist? Just enough iTunes tracks to get through writing a pitch to the Village Voice, enough drip coffee to stay up all night writing a blog about the van der Waals force for the benefit of anonymous stranger's term papers, or maybe a charcoal pencil to finish that damn drawing. For the giver, it's buying time on someone else's behalf—encouraging a person to keep doing what he or she is doing. It is to say, "I think this might work out for you." That's the internet at its best.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user jmoneyyyyyyy\n

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