The question of how much to tip at the Salon just got more complicated

Salon announced this week that they’re going to start a tipping program for user-generated posts. It’s a well-timed announcement – coinciding with the Bejing Olympics this week – as we’re often reminded by many gratuity-based businesses that tipping is not a city in China.

(That was a long way to go for a groaner of a joke, I know. But tough. If you want Internet-publishing commentary without Catskills moments, go read Scott Karp.)

One point Caroline McCarthy makes in the link above is undeniable: This kind of plan won’t work for all sites. But I’m not sure she’s right in saying Digg! – “a more rabble-friendly site” – wouldn’t be able to adopt it. It smacks of elitism, or the kind of thinking that says – to steal a bit from Orwell – some user-generated content is more equal than others. The issue is not your user base, it’s about what you’re asking of them.

First of all, Digg! already has its own version of this plan. In fact, it’s the very idea on which the site is based though without the monetary incentives. And Yelp!* also has a large user base, full of plenty of rabblers, but they also have a smart, engaged group of people who are generally able to separate the wheat from the chaff, without the financial incentive.

Admittedly, Yelp! is also a good example of how a pay-for-home-page-play scheme might backfire and get abused, since they haven’t figured out how to separate their editorial from their marketing content (or rather, don’t see the need to do so). On a review-based site, I could see businesses opening accounts to “tip” good reviews of their businesses and tainting the value of the site for the less engaged members of its community (the person who just drops in occasionally to read reviews, not post them).

(There’s also a discussion to be had here about whether sites should be paying people who contribute content. Gawker recently came down on the side of “yes” which is funny for a number of reasons. Based on my own free-posting past at Chicagoist – and based on my experience in the offline world where interns are a crucial part of the economies of business with advantages for everyone involved – I’d say “not necessarily” but I’m still working it out in my brain for a future post.)

The question isn’t “Is there too much rabble on this site for this idea to work?” The question is “Will this plan encourage people to give us the kind of content we want more of?”

An idea like this won’t work if you’re just trying to generate more content. Asinine comments, silly-ass videos and eye-bleeding profile pages will sprout up no matter what. But if you’re a site that wants to encourage its users to provide something specific – say, pictures of news events or reported articles – then it has potential.

Still, I think the viability of a currency-supported system of recommendations is an open question. As McCarthy points out, people will spend money when they feel like what they’re getting has value they can’t get elsewhere, be it warrior helmets or music. Sometimes the value is the product itself, sometimes the value is immediacy, and sometimes it’s the model itself. (I’m only a moderate Radiohead fan, but I supported the idea of what they were doing, so I dropped a few dimes on In Rainbows for that reason, not because I was a rabid fan or felt I needed to hear it before other people.)

Just like customers stop spending money at brick-and-mortar businesses when the product quality is no longer worth paying for, so too will users spend their time and money elsewhere. If Salon can use this model to provide better – and easier to find – content, it will have a future.

* If I start a social networking site, I’m going to avoid the use of exclamation points. Might actually go with a semi-colon, which suggests that the real meat of the discussion is coming up. If anyone steals this concept, I will punch you in the solar plexus.

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