This Could Be the Future of Selling Online

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The whole genius of most modern internet giants is "taking away the middleman." Whether you're buying furniture or toothbrushes or access to online comics, you're paying directly to the source. That's the ad copy, at least — more often than not, your shopping is facilitated by a platform, like Amazon, Etsy, or Patreon, that takes a cut for itself, however big or small.

Some computer engineers at the University of Southern California may have figured out a way around that. Two researchers say they've come up with a model that allows the buying and selling of digital goods in a manner that's "less costly, more efficient, and less vulnerable to fraud," according to a press release. The process itself involves some buzzy phrases like blockchain, game theory, and smart contracts, but simply put, it creates a system that incentivizes honesty on both sides of a transaction.

In the simplest terms, both the buyer and the seller will put down a deposit in escrow. Both of them will get their money back when both parties are satisfied with the outcome of the sale. If one or the other tries to cheat, they forfeit the funds in escrow and also get a digital black mark to warn off future customers. The specifics are a little complicated, but it's an interesting approach — one that could spell trouble for all the platforms and middlemen, but a boom for artists, writers, and other independent creators who are so often stripped of virtually all the profits of their work.