Grant for the Web — Feedback from Creators One Year In
If you haven’t heard about Grant for the Web yet, you should! GftW is a fund housed at the Interledger Foundation to drive innovation in Web Monetization and Open Payments. GftW launched its first-ever call for proposals in mid-2020, promoting innovation in web monetization, alternative business models for the web, and the creator economy.
Already there have been many grantees (you can see the full list here). This is Grant for the Web’s second year! As a current Mozilla Fellow researching web economics and creator economies, I wanted to catch up with some of the grantees to interview them about their experience with micropayments, web monetization and Interledger. This article is an overview of the more recent grantees and all of the amazing things they’re working on.
Do you have a project in mind that would contribute to improving the web, communities and alternatives to advertising? Grant for the Web’s latest call for proposals closed on September 24th. You can stay tuned for the next Grant for the Web announcements by following Grant for the Web on Twitter.
Ampled —Austin Robey
Over the past decade, streaming apps have quickly become the main way most people listen to music. While this makes finding and listening to new music much easier for music fans, it’s not quite the same for the artists — with the revenues from streaming hardly being sufficient to make a living.
Ampled was designed to combat this problem by providing a community platform for music artists. Co-Founder Austin Robey describes it as “a web platform for direct recurring community support of musicians. I typically describe it to people as a Patreon for music, that is formed as a co-op. The platform itself is collectively owned and controlled by artists and workers together.”
One key difference between Ampled and Patreon is that the latter provides crowdfunding for a wide range of situations — everything from independent films to games to stores to hospital bills can be fundraised on Patreon.
Ampled has a more specific approach, custom-tailored for musicians. “There was no better category for these ideas to take place than music, one where there already is a culture of counterculture, people shying away from overt consumerism. Collectivism, grass roots community support — I think a lot of social movements find their grounding in art first.”
One of the web’s most impressive qualities is community building — though it might be easy to forget that in an era where social media arguments have become the norm. Robey hopes that recent developments in alternative financial models demonstrate a movement towards more communal thought in online content.
“There’s a bit of a gap of understanding between solidarity economics and the crypto space. But still there’s an overlap of people talking about community ownership, co-governance, owning protocols — so what I’ve become more interested in lately is thinking about ways to thread that needle.”
Jesse Von Doom
Jesse Von Doom has spent the last fifteen years working on his vision for decentralized web monetization. One of his most notable contributions was the 2007 startup CASH Music — a nonprofit building open source tools for musicians.
More recently, he started Substation, which aims to liberate crowdfunding from services which value profit over artist self-sustainability.
Von Doom initially was hoping to integrate Interledger with e-mail, creating a versatile payment system which would use already existing web infrastructure. However, he found that no existing wallet would support that approach. “Basically, in order to do a test of it, I would have to invent a hypothetical wallet to go along with it.”
“There really just isn’t a great way over the Interledger protocol all by itself to do that same level of every single month, every single quarter, every X period of time. That was the piece that was missing. There’s no service saying ‘I specifically want this to be directed to this one person or group, every single month.”
Von Doom is skeptical of some current trends in this area — including the current boom in NFTs and Cryptocurrencies. “When you’re listening to all your friends screaming about late stage capitalism one day, and then they switch to ‘no no no, here’s what the coin offering looks like for this one thing.’ How did you make that switch?”
He doesn’t see NFTs as supporting underprivileged groups, or even successful creators like musicians. He sees it as too close to pre-existing systems of value, sharing many of the same problems.
“The amount of effort that went into it was so huge, and yet the only way it recognizes value is with this idea of scarcity and market economics. They’re talking about how much money they’ll go through, and what the appreciation looks like vs the depreciation.”
“I wish we could put the same level of human energy into thinking about: how do we recognize and think about different kinds of value, and reward those different kinds of value?”
“I’m not a person that believes in one future. Everyone says ‘the future of music is BLANK.” But there’s no *the* future. You and I have been around long enough to know: the future for a minute was pointcast, and then the future was RSS, we’ve had a million futures and we’re still living in a million futures at the same time.”
Kokayi Walker is a Grammy-nominated musician fusing jazz and hip hop with other styles, while telling vivid stories about the Black experience. He’s also a talented photographer, an educator in improvised music, and has even worked freelance as a music emissary for the US State department.
Kokayi is a true artist, driven to express himself in multiple mediums while supporting others in their work. His website describes him as an “Artist, Producer, Educator and a Connector of dots. Kokayi’s work with Grant for the Web has been focused on trying to expand tech accessibility for underserved communities.
Kokayi sees a lot of problems with the one-sided nature of the current tech climate, where the traditional upper and middle class white audiences seem to be still the focus and builders of many apps. There seems to be a lack of understanding of what technical resources and capabilities lower classes have access to, simply because of their material circumstances.
Because of this, many programs make assumptions about what’s accessible to lower income people and do not account for additional needs and circumstances. There is room to grow here in both showing how much money can help communities, but also being able to listen and become aware of where people are truly coming from.
He also notes that some systems are brought to life by communities, but are then turned into streamlined money-making systems that do not value or compensate those who helped build their culture. He cites audio chat service Clubhouse — an app which got off the ground thanks to Black communities.
I love Clubhouse. But black people came in and made it cool, the valuation went up, and now you’re paying people through the app. That’s nice, but what about all the people who made it cool?
Clubhouse has since come to resemble yet another money-making mainstream hit, other than including diverse faces as the face of the app, has not led to direct compensation or shared ownership of the company based on those who helped in its early days.
Part of Walker’s approach is expanding the discussion around Web Monetization — which in its current state is not developed enough to be an all-purpose solution.
Web monetization is in its infancy — I’m not selling any dreams. But it’s good to bypass the institutions which are the current gatekeepers.
Most of the difference, as Kokayi sees it, is that many people have less access to technology. He notes that there isn’t a lot of Web Monetization support for mobile phones right now, requiring people to have access to a laptop to edit their website. “Web monetization is one piece of the puzzle, but we need to figure out how to allow people to monetize on different platforms. So you could take your Cricket or Boost mobile phone, and still be able to take off on whatever your idea is.”
He also points out that “even this kind of discussion is segregated, because you have to have a computer, wi-fi access, a website, you have to be able to afford Squarespace or Godaddy to purchase things” in order to make websites. Not everyone has full time access to a computer or laptop. Some people only have access to a mobile phone, and it’s not often the latest version.
To really change things, Walker sees getting more tools out there to be the next essential step. Strong support for mobile systems and tools for people who can’t code would be very helpful. He thinks an important grant would be one which provides people with laptops, or gives them free access to web hosting. Spreading the word about web tools isn’t quite enough — in order to really see a change in the web landscape, it needs to be more accessible to those who are currently outside of its traditional reach.
Artist Rescue Trust
Artist Rescue Trust is a collective of artists, activists, and designers, conceived as a way to introduce people working in creative fields to tools with the ability to help their art become self-sustaining.
Artist Rescue Trust was given almost $300,000 USD to distribute to artists in need during the pandemic. In doing so, artists also had the opportunity to learn more about web monetization and Interledger through short, informative videos.
Todd Hansen ran conference programming at Austin’s famous South by Southwest festival for ten years. When the 2020 festival was cancelled due to COVID, Hansen and his collaborators realized many people reliant on in-person events were going to face unexpected problems.
He describes the trust’s goal as “teaching artists how to fish. Cash is great up front, but what’s really helpful is another way for artists to have a revenue stream.”
Audrey Ullman is the trust’s Community Outreach Manager. Ullman sees resources like the A.R.T. as ways to potentially level the playing field for marginalized communities. “We did specific outreach to Indigenous populations… A lot of the issues that we see in Indigenous artist populations: there is a great deal of tech literacy and adoption that has yet to be done.”
It is a little harder to get the understanding and trust in what we’re working on. What I’ve found is: a couple of things make it more attainable. These are groups that are used to finding unique solutions, and so there is a willingness to participate in trying something new.
Hansen notes that some of the challenge ahead will lie in more of a focus on monetization for mobile devices.
For us, traffic is literally like 60% mobile, and 38% not. Everyone is on mobile, why wasn’t mobile the first solution? Approaching it from a product development mindset, it really doesn’t make sense.
Non-profits tend to have a lot of rules about how they can divert money — and while this may have been designed to prevent corruption and embezzlement, Hansen feels that it can also prevent legitimate non-profits from directing money towards the people who really need it.“The non profit space doesn’t have a mechanism to directly fund artists. For most of these places, it’s written in their rules that they can’t directly fund artists in the way we’re trying to. It has to be this elaborate, multi-step process.”
According to Ullman, “it’s not that web monetization will solve all of your problems, but it will empower you to find creative solutions. This isn’t snake oil, it’s just a new tool.”
Akita — Sharon Wang and Elliot Evans
Sharon Wang and Elliot Evans are developers from Ottawa, with a shared interest in open source and community building resources. Their current project is Akita, named and designed after a particularly adorable Japanese dog breed.
Akita is a browser extension meant to help users understand web monetization. It’s a simple concept designed to be unobtrusive to everyday browsing — if a site has been monetized, the extension’s logo shows a little dollar sign. The idea is to help audiences interested in monetization to think about how it’s applied to various websites which one visits regularly.
According to Sharon, “We want to be a bit of an entry point for people to get into the space. They don’t have to think what we’re doing is good — it’s great if they do, but the main goal is getting exposure to web monetization, being positive or negative or critical about it.”
Elliot says, “one thing we see that’s sort of a gap is: alternative models for web monetization providers. Coil does it one way — they have it set so when you visit a website, you stream it 36 cents per hour. There’s no customization, that’s how it is if you use Coil. But web monetization doesn’t specify that it’s the only way it has to be.”
Akita also keeps track of monetized sites which have been visited, and tells non-monetized users just how much they would have supported them if they had monetized.
20 years ago, the web was just kind of a place where you tried to find some information you needed. There wasn’t a lot of interaction and socialization. Whereas now, with all the social and information-based platforms, there’s always a community aspect to it. This social aspect, I don’t think it’s at its peak yet. I feel like it’s going to keep going, and we’re going to be more connected in the future. I feel like there’s still space to innovate there.
Here’s a short video that Sharon and Elliot put together, outlining just how the web extension works.
Hessel Van Oorschot
Hessel Van Oorschot is a Dutch entrepreneur who is passionate about open business models.
One of his biggest projects in recent years has been the Free Music Archive, a popular American resource which shut down a few years ago. Van Oorschot’s company Tribe of Noise purchased the service and revamped it, seeing it as an important resource for creators everywhere.
The distribution of music royalties was complicated even before the streaming age — with the rights to most popular songs split between publishers, labels, performers, and the writers themselves.
On any given well known song, there are at least 20 rights holders. It’s totally not transparent how the splits are, so if Spotify collects a dollar for so many plays, then 70% of that company goes to the label and the other 30% ends up somewhere in a black box.
We just need to shorten that value chain dramatically. For example, if we sell a song to someone who’s creating a podcast, or youtube, or film or documentary, then they can search the songs, pay and download in high resolution, use that song and know that the money they just paid will be shared with the rights holder that same month.
Tribe of Noise started because Van Oorschot owned a video production company, allowing him to see just how complex the licensing of music could be, especially on a smaller budget. A few years in, he realized that there were similar issues with the licensing of background music used in stores and restaurants. It was another problematic system to which Tribe of Music could help provide an artist-friendly alternative.
He sees a lot of potential in services like Coil, in particular the way one subscription can support a wide range of online content. “If I want to stay for one month only on a site for downloading and playing with photos, I can — but if the next month, my hunger changes to ‘I need podcast music, videos, animated GIFs’, I can.”
Still, he thinks Coil could do a better job of selling its service to newcomers.
If Coil stays in a space where they only are a digital payment provider, then they are as boring as a bank. And I don’t want to tell my friends about my bank. I think what they can do better is show people that it can connect platforms for music, for photos, for videos. This is the whole bundle, you get all of this for five dollars, plus hundreds of other sites.
He also has some questions about the popularity of cryptocurrencies as a driving force for monetization. “Those musicians or photographers, they have to pay their rent in dollars or Euros. So if they get paid in a currency that fluctuates up or down in a matter of weeks, then I think that will make a lot of people nervous.”
Still, he sees the wallet technology which enables micropayments as a potentially world-changing innovation, proposing that the same systems which are currently used to track payments could also keep track of intellectual property.
If we can use that same mechanism we use for payouts to actually identify the writer, and the moment it was uploaded, and have that information available to the whole world. It can tell you when it pops up in a Youtube or TikTok video. That would solve so many real world problems for the music industry, and the film industry.
Sultan Akintunde is a founder for several Nigerian startups, including DevCareers and TalentQL. Both are focused on helping Africans with an interest in the tech work find resources, teams, and networking skills.
He’s also the writer of an article called “Web Monetization Like I’m 5,” seeking to explain the concept to readers who may be unfamiliar with it.
Akintunde says that the success of monetization in Africa will depend on users adopting services like Coil on a local scale rather than a continental one — but there are some things which make this difficult. “One of the reasons is because it’s five dollars a month, but that five dollars in Nigerian dollars is about 2,500 Naira. So while the five dollars might be affordable in the US, in Nigeria it’s quite a bit high.”
Nigeria has been a focal point of the cryptocurrency discussion recently, in part thanks to its government’s attempts to ban and control crypto trading. As the largest economy in Africa — and the second largest crypto market after the US — the effects of these efforts are of interest to anyone with an interest in the crypto sector — from investors and FinTech startups, to more crypto-skeptical organizations like governments and banks.
In Nigeria, the government itself, and the financial sector, is really scared of anything that’s unregulated. So there are really a lot of regulations on platforms that actually allow the selling and buying of cryptocurrency. So what that did negatively, was that it created an air of panic.
The government has since changed its tactics, and tried to promote its own digital currency, the E-Naira, which they hoped would stop the trading of unregulated currency. But it hasn’t worked — with many Nigerians seeing cryptocurrency as a protector from government oppression or incompetence.
The companies which deal with Crypto in Nigeria, are trying to form an organization and sit down with the regulators, and tries to explain to them the negative effects what they’re proposing, and the positive side as well.
Nigeria’s role as one of the pivotal countries in the tech world is something Sultan attributes to its diversity and wealth disparity. “We have a diverse set of people with different cultures and traditions, and different upbringings. The country itself is not a rich country, it happens to have a lot of rich people. The richest ones in Africa are probably in Nigeria. I promise you’ll find the poorest people in Africa in Nigeria, too.”
He also feels that much of his country’s embrace of new approaches rises from a lack of action on the part of the official government. “We have a very dysfunctional ecosystem, and because of that, folks have tried to find a way to make life easier for one another.”
“Because of that, we started treating a lot of these things. We live in a culture where when you see a problem in the economy, the next thing that comes to mind is “oh, I can fix this!”
Andy Baio has already had a long and exciting career, between founding one of the first online event calendars and an early CTO of Kickstarter. Most recently, Baio is the creator of Skittish, an online meeting place which fills a very different niche than camera-based chats or fully 3D VR spaces.
Skittish resembles an old school, top-down 2D adventure game, where guests choose cute animal avatars and engage in live audio chat which changes volume based on their proximity to other users. Functionally, it’s reminiscent of the audio-only chat app Clubhouse, but with a fun visual aesthetic which helps keep events light and less intimidating for camera-shy users.
There’s a lot of people trying out spatial chat right now, and they’re all trying different approaches. What I’ve done is pretty indie, it’s not going to be for everyone. But my working theory: if I can make something that works well for the kind of thing I want to exist, then hopefully other people will want that as well.
Skittish is a product of the COVID age, and developed out of a need for Baio to develop alternatives for his XOXO festival, an annual convention for online artists.
When the pandemic cancelled XOXO, we had never even considered doing it as a virtual event. There’s really no way to do an event like XOXO on any existing platform. I started breaking that down — going to virtual events and seeing that they all kind of fit one of two models. There’s the one-to-many livestream, like Youtube and Twitch, and the many-to-many model, like a zoom call.
Only one person can really talk at a time. What’s lost in those two models is organic, serendipitous connection between people who are experiencing the same thing together. In a real world event, it comes from people running into each other, and moving from venue to venue, or circling different groups and hearing snippets of conversation.
The locational chat approach wasn’t Skittish’s only novel addition to the limited space of online chats. It also was also built to be entirely web monetized, in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the experience by requiring too many extra steps.
Implementing web monetization for it was just so straightforward. In Skittish, when you create an event, along with picking the name for the event url, you’re prompted for a payment pointer. If you put one in, then it monetizes your event. If you don’t use a payment pointer, it uses Skittish’s — so every Skittish event is monetized, whether they’re using Coil or not.
Conducting these interviews helped me learn a lot about some of the people exploring the frontier at the next stage of web development. The current iteration of the web has had its problems, but those help provide context for potential solutions moving forward.
One big takeaway is the idea that there are potential applications for distributed ledgers besides the current, much-publicized Crypto and NFT approaches. These elements have already changed the conversation significantly, but they only contain a hint of what distributed ledgers could do in the future.
I’d particularly love to see distributed ledgers used to provide a more seamless way for people to discover new creative content. When large networks like Twitter or Facebook are some of the only ways to spread new content and links, our web window is dictated by their limited algorithms.
Community voting on distributed ledgers could provide countless new avenues for discovery.
Imagine an evolved version of an earlier platform like StumbleUpon, with the recommended content based on massive user-submitted, blockchain-enabled lists rather than mechanical keywords. This could also be used to provide a revenue stream to contributors, giving incentive to explore and share interesting links in a more community-based context.
One currently example of a community moving in this direction is mg.social. They are web monetized through Coil. Users are also able to earn from posting and viewers are able to upvote or tip posts.
With so much of web discourse taking place through text and photos, it’s particularly exciting to see where voice chat-based platforms might take us. Much of the web is so visual that we forget how voice can cut through appearances and really allow us to connect at the core of who we are.
The nuances of a human voice can really lend well to creating and fostering community, expressing emotions like compassion, patience, and even sarcasm in ways that text alone can never communicate.
Platforms like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces strike me as a perfect fit for Web Monetization. By allowing room hosts to share their Interledger payment pointers, listeners could stream payments for the duration of their event. Skittish has already integrated payment pointers, and the combination of fun animal shapes and voice makes for a far more fun and less stressful experience than the static boxes of Zoom.
Gaming and Web Monetization
One of the standout examples of where Web Monetization is used best is for independent, browser-based games, which seem like a perfect match for Web Monetization.
Many games can run directly off of a website, which allows games to be discoverable by people outside of the standard industry.. Gamers spend a lot of time on a given gaming website, allowing for passive income for web monetized creators.
Some examples of this are Sushi Party, a web-monetized snake game where players compete to eat the most sushi as they grow in size and try to avoid each other’s tails. It’s a great example of a web monetized game, as users are on site for a while, and supporting Sushi Party through a Coil subscription eliminates ads.
Some of the games from Game JS Jam and JS13K games which have fractional monetization models using Web Monetization.
Fractionalized Web Monetization could allow a game marketplace or webring to make money, while also streaming funds to the individual sites themselves. The world of independent gaming is already huge, and still growing — and the development of monetization-focused marketplaces could help provide new models to help fund the next generation of games.
Economic Access and Support
Moving forward, it’s essential for developing platforms to consider social class and access. Some of the organizations that could benefit the most from web monetization consist of people that don’t have persistent access to computers. Better mobile support for creating mobile websites would be a positive step, and the ability to add web monetization to a site through a mobile browser would expand the ability for people with limited access.
The organizations that focused on education for creators were particularly impressive. I was especially impressed by Artists Rescue Trust, and their clear, concise, informative videos about Web Monetization.
A further step in this direction would be to provide a pattern library of templates and example websites, designed to help web developers get started and learn along the way. A library like this could function as a resource for countless courses and tutorials, and include important information on monetization, traffic flow, community building, and other essential concepts which can be hard for newcomers to wrap their heads around.
This was a fantastic opportunity to look at some of the exciting developments on the frontier of web development. I was able to learn so much, work with so many interesting people, and evolve my brain in ways I had never expected. I’m looking forward to 2022!
This post was made possible through Mozilla Fellowship. Thanks to Coil for providing the funds for my research into web monetization, the creator economy, and alternatives to advertising!
Do you have a project in mind that would contribute to improving the web, communities and alternatives to advertising? Grant for the Web’s latest call for proposals just closed on September 24th. You can stay tuned for the next Grant for the Web announcements by following Grant for the Web on Twitter.