WhoPaid99Cents.com is the M.C. Escher print of websites: Its sole purpose is to charge users 99 cents to unlock a list of people who also paid the site 99 cents to look at the list of users who paid 99 cents. The conceit is diabolical: The only way to see who was stupid enough to fall for it is to pay the money and become a sucker yourself. Launched Friday morning by Thinko, a Brooklyn-based computer entertainment studio that specializes in creating cartoons, video games, and other weird internet things, the site defies explanation. But that didn’t stop us from calling up Pasquale D’Silva, a partner at Thinko, in search of answers.
Heather Schwedel: How did you come up with the idea for WhoPaid99Cents.com?
Pasquale D’Silva: The same way that any one of our other ideas have just kind of happened. We talked about what a funny piece of internet to make would be. The idea of having to pay to see who paid for something just made us laugh. I think there’s a lot of us internet-makers who are typically trapped working on boring jobs and using technology to do things that are maybe not so creative or entertaining. It’s funny, I think, to use computers for things they weren’t designed for. This is a perfect example of that. We just kind of cobbled this thing together in a few hours and then launched it this morning. It seems to be drumming up some fun conversation.
What are your favorite reactions that you’ve seen so far?
There was a good one from Mashable that was like, “Don’t give this dumb website your money. There’s better things to spend your money on.” There were a few others where people have said they’re already hooked on it; we’ve had return customers wanting to check on how it’s going and a few people who have misspelled their names. We intentionally made it kind of duct-taped together. You can’t go back and edit your name. If you refresh the page and you’re looking at the list of people, you gotta pay again to unlock the list of people. The whole thing is like a game; it’s like a toy. It’s fun to just build stuff that way instead of having to worry about the more serious cases or implications that you would typically have to worry about when you’re building a consumer piece of software.
It was 77 people when I did it around 2 p.m.
It’s definitely going up. It’s funny, we have a Slackbot telling us when a transaction happens. As soon as we launched, they just started ticking in. There’s been a few points today where it’s been a few per second, which is just shocking to see. We’re superinterested in getting back to that kind of internet that was so fun for us when we were getting started making things for computers.
It does seem like a bit of a throwback. Are there any earlier projects you were thinking of?
The classic would be Million Dollar Homepage, which is such a legendary story [the site was founded in 2005 and sold off its pixels like real estate—it really did make its creator a millionaire]. There’s been people who have been trying to make other versions of Million Dollar Homepage [for a while]. When we were riffing about other websites we could make, we were like, “OK, what about Billion Dollar Homepage, or MillionDollarHomepage2.com?” We were looking at the domains. Weirdly, they’ve been snapped up and no one’s made anything. It was frustrating. There’s a trillion different ideas like this, and people will talk about them. That’s one thing, it’s easy to talk about them, but it’s also not that hard to just build it. This is just a few hours of cobbling together readily available internet services, and the thing just works. It’s definitely more gratifying and it’s funny to see it actually pulled off.
A lot of these sort of single-serving sites or stunts involve another platform now, like Twitter or Tumblr, so that’s another aspect of this that’s vintage-y, that it’s its own site.
If you can pull it off and you can do it outside of those networks, you can be as weird and free as you want to. Otherwise you’ve gotta play inside the rules of Twitter; it’s just kind of a garbage stream of noise and everyone’s screaming at each other to be heard. That’s definitely a challenge that’s been in my head, like, “How can you make a good piece of internet in the same universe that all these other big, massive social media giants are in and fighting for people’s attention?” I hope we see more of it, that would be cool.
What are you going to do with the money you’ve made?
Our dozens of dollars? We invest all of our profits back into projects we’re working on at Thinko. The next thing we’re working on is a thing about a sentient computer that’s trying to trick people into being creative and funny on the internet.
Would you consider adding more features to the site?
It’s one of those things where, classic product people or growth hackers when they start working on products, they kind of ruin the initial charm by making [them] too complex. There’s something beautiful about how simple it is. You don’t have to wrap your head around a crazy paradigm. Some things are just best left in their current form factor, to exist as is as a weird piece of art or meme on the internet.
How does the company make most of its money?
Consulting. We work with different brands and companies to help them do the stuff that they’re not so great at, which turns out to be creativity and goofing around and maybe giving them a fresh, playful perspective that might be kind of hard to do on the inside. They just kind of pull us in as a SWAT team to spitball crazy ideas and then also make them.
Do you think you’ll just leave the site up in its current state forever?
Software isn’t as durable as we all think it is, there’s still a little bit of effort you gotta put into maintaining things. [But] as long as we don’t try to add any features or anything, I feel like we’ll be able keep it around for a while. We’ll keep it up; it doesn’t cost us anything to really to keep it on the internet. It’s just a database and Stripe transactions. There’s no rocket surgery going on there.
How much money have you made so far?
You’re going to have to pay 99 cents to find out.