digitaLiberties: News

Money systems are being rebuilt – who’s in control?

Organisations like openDemocracy and our reader community can participate in shaping what monetary forms prevail

Matthew Linares
8 March 2021, 3.43pm
We can design systems that improve how people behave and are rewarded online
Chris Rout / Alamy Stock Photo
  • New monetary technologies are emerging which could enable better incentives on the internet

  • With care, we can design systems that improve how information is created, and how people behave and are rewarded online

  • openDemocracy’s comments experiment, supported by, is an example of how micropayments can be used to this end

The internet started out as a richly utopian prospect. Free and fast information for all would flush out falsehood and produce optimally informed citizens, so they said. It would be a lot of fun too!

That dream has long since soured and the world seems to be engulfed by gales of deviant data.

In response we call tirelessly for regulation and plead for virtuous behaviour from corporations who are constitutionally incapable of detoxifying their products. The incentives are wrong: earnings are fattest when they leverage human psychology to drive dependency and inflamed emotion on their platforms.

We, as citizens and civil society, should seek to tackle this by designing new ways of engaging online.

Engineering incentives

The web is often described as a key site of the “attention economy” where limits on people's capacity to engage are stretched and fought over by competing sites, apps, and products.

There are many aspects to consider about how people behave online: where they choose to spend their time; why they decide to engage with certain elements on a page; whether they remain civil, comment constructively, express encouragement with a like button, or choose to play moderator by reporting problematic submissions.

Whatever motivates people’s actions online is worth understanding. At best, we can use this understanding to help us design experiences that achieve different results. By considering what incentives are part of a given web experience and finding ways to alter or augment those we might cultivate preferable online spaces.

This should be done with humility – the techno-solutionist attitude that we can neatly solve society’s ills with code, when applied thoughtlessly or with hubris, often makes things worse.

However, since we do use technology to conduct our affairs, it’s essential that we question and take part in its design.

Digital money is a paradigm, shifting around us

We are currently seeing a raft of developments that aim to reconstruct financial life. Whilst the war on cash advances steadily, new monetary forms are burbling across the internet poised to bring transformation.

The realm of cryptocurrency, a frenzied hotbed of hype and hyper-valuation, is slowly settling into a mature landscape of new-fangled finance platforms and visionary governance systems undergirded by programmable money.

Data-first policies, such as the UK’s Open Banking, are unleashing swathes of disruptive finance.

China is setting new precedents for how money is managed, from WeChat’s omnipresent payments to the Central Bank’s march toward digital currency.

WeChat and AliPay stickers next to Visa and Mastercard on a bakery window illustrate the changing payments landscape.
WeChat and AliPay stickers next to Visa and Mastercard on a bakery window illustrate the changing payments landscape.
Photo: DECKLONGBOO/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Those currency plans arrived at a time when cryptocurrencies had proved they could hold and transfer value without state sanction or control. Facebook tried to launch its own version in the brazen hope of cornering global payments whilst knowing the US government would prefer a homegrown corporation in control of money.

These fundamental shifts in how money works will redefine how it shapes political reality. The various technologies involved offer different visions of what we think of as money in future, who controls it, the role of the state, and how it allows us to craft our lives and economies.

Given wider trends in which tech firms set regulation, it’s possible that no government will have the technical prowess to decide what money system presides in future. We, as citizens, must become active in designing and deciding that.

We have still not seen a victor in this realm, yet whatever systems do triumph will smuggle their own ideologies with them.

Aspirations for the world’s new monies

These trends prompt us to think about what we might hope for from monetary systems.

Cryptocurrencies have promised radically transparent, open-source forms of money. A heady melange of libertarian and global-democratic values, the blockchain scene that they spring from proposes a whole host of alternatives. They extol decentralization as a core principle, undoing the need for governments to provide the mechanics of money.

Related systems that propose to give us new ways of doing money include Digital Autonomous Organisations , Universal Basic Income, local currency systems, and new web-native protocols like Interledger for peer-to-peer cross-border payments.

What seems certain is that money will look different in the future than it does today, and a great number of folk are vying to define the rules.

Experimenting with payments to support comments

Against this backdrop, organisations like openDemocracy and our reader community can participate in shaping what monetary forms prevail.

Our current experiment with micropayments for comments is an example.

Comment spaces are a melting pot of useful corrections, spirited disagreements, fast-moving collaborations and calamitous toxicity. A lot has been said about what they do for our communities. We wouldn’t want to remove the ability for readers to participate in articles but nor can we tolerate the worst excesses of online debate.

By employing new incentives in this way we hope to tap into latent resources to nurture the debates that accompany our articles.

The feature we have introduced is just one variety of monetised comment. There are a multitude of ways to re-align incentives using financial and other mechanisms. This is just one attempt.

» Comment on this article (below) to use this feature.

How should we design a market of comments?

By introducing financial incentives into the publishing flow we open up a host of possibilities, as well as possible problems. Even prior to adding them a number of incentives and disincentives already exist that affect a reader’s disposition to engage.

Many comment spaces are organically lively, bristling with impassioned participants who partake because they want to be heard, they believe in the public square, and they want to bring their knowledge to the debate. Could it be poisonous to introduce financial rewards and incentives to such spaces of civic purity?

It’s widely agreed that journalists should be paid for their efforts in writing articles. Whilst this does not always happen, financial recognition for those who toil to improve our discourse with good writing is something to strive for. With this experiment, we may extend that to comment writers, potentially expanding the economy of good writing and rewarding research which currently goes without remuneration.

Nevertheless, experimenting with novel incentive schemes must be done with care and a view to avoiding unsavoury outcomes.

With all of this in mind, we invite our readers and commenters to take part, to get a feel for the new systems we are using, and make your views heard. This is a live experiment and your thoughts can contribute to the designs that come next.

Add your comment below – if it gets promoted, you could get a share of revenue to this page.

How will comments be rewarded?

Our new feature, supported with a, gives payment options that let readers reward authors and commenters. By setting up Coil micropayments you can support authors on our site, and also the authors of comments that have been highlighted by an article’s author. Read more about how it works or comment below to see it in action .


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
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