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.
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.
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.