Today’s Web is a shopping mall.
It is populated by struggling creators, relentless advertisements, and dominated by large chains and fast-food services.
There isn’t much room for mid-sized businesses, and customers and workers alike barely interact with each other.
You don’t feel comfort at this mall, all you can feel is annoyance and despair.
Let’s instead imagine the Web as a fertile farmer’s market, full of countless vendors selling local produce.
When you make a purchase, you don’t just slide a card and wait for your product. You get to communicate with the person you’re buying from, seeing the transaction from their perspective as well as your own.
There’s no wall between you separating the buyer from the seller, you’re both essential components of the very concept of a market.
In this environment, we’re more likely to explore, to meet new people, to try new products, and sell our own.
This is a healthy market, one with human energy and emotion, which feeds our happiness rather than just feeding off of it.
A healthy market doesn’t depend on you making big purchases, buying items in bulk or by subscription.
It doesn’t force vendors to advertise large brands in between each purchase.
It doesn’t limit you to whatever items might be the most profitable this month.
Its goal is to give you as many options as it can, rather than simply making the highest profit.
In a few weeks, I’ll be co-hosting a conference called the Future of Micropayments where we discuss possibilities like this — the current climate and potential future of micropayments, which may prove to be the missing link between the current internet and one built with its users in mind.
A Human-Sized Web
Traditional marketplaces were built at human scale, with person to person interactions between people sharing conversations of all lengths.
We see echoes of this model in farmer’s markets, and food cart parks — places which are satisfying to shop because we directly interact with people..
The current web is built at the wrong scale — it’s only made to fit short conversations and large purchases.
If the web is going to reinvent itself, shouldn’t the next iteration be at human scale? A scale where individuals can see each other, and appreciate the value of their interaction.
Farmers markets, food carts and corner stores are satisfying places to shop, because we have a range of options and get to speak directly with the people who brought them to us.
Right now it seems like there are only two ways to participate in the web: as a professional creative or as a corporation.
The closest thing we have to independent stores are Patreon or Etsy, where creators have to be professional marketers competing with international distributors, only to get a fraction of the payment.
It’s not just small businesses that suffer in this scenario, but our everyday experience of what it is to be human. We swat away pop-ups like mosquitos, each ready to suck the blood of our attention and infect our hopes and dreams.
At the end, we are all stuck in a pattern of advertisements, subscriptions, and recurring fees, none of which benefit the creator.
What would a system look like which is built not around the owners of the marketplace, but around its merchants and consumers?
This system doesn’t exist yet, but a new protocol called Interledger, which allows money to flow across the web the same way email does, may be the building block for future markets.
Interledger makes it possible to transfer very small quantities of money, regardless of currency, opening up the possibility for streaming money.
And one of the first companies to adopt Interledger is a startup called Coil.
On the Mozilla Blog, Anselm Hook writes:
“Coil is a for-profit membership service that charges users $5.00 a month and streams micropayments to creators based on member attention. Coil uses the Interledger network to move money, allowing creators to work in any currency they like.
And just to be clear, Interledger is not a blockchain and there is no “Interledger token”. Interledger functions more like the Internet, in that it routes packets. Except the packets also represent money instead of just carrying data. You can find out more about how it works on interledger.org.”
Coil allows anyone to add a payment pointer to their website, and then get paid anytime someone in the network visits their site. But there’s a lot more than it can do.
Interledger can allow fractional payments to multiple creators, access to new game levels for Coil subscribers, and a better way of paying journalists than signing up for a dozen monthly subscriptions.
This model of web monetization is new, but it’s already opening up a lot of opportunities for peer to peer payments, empowering creatives on the web, and adding a crucial new element formerly missing to the web.
Coil and Interledger are the current models of what may be everyday systems in ten years. Systems like these might be used to bring all of the marketplaces of the current web back to human scale.
Let’s imagine web monetization applied in new ways to a number of industries:
Despite predictions that downloadable music would be the death of the music industry, we saw an independent renaissance of sorts during the early Web era.
While music sales in the early 2000s fell from 13 billion to 11.5 billion, concert revenues grew from 1.3 billion to 2.1 billion.
Concerts allow a more direct dialogue between artist and audience — album and merchandise sales at shows go directly to the band themselves, a system that could sustain even independent acts.
Now, the music industry has shifted towards streaming, this has all changed. We have access to more music, but we depend on algorithms to recommend them instead of articles by fellow music fans.
The future of concerts is an open-ended question, as livestreams have yet to show nearly the same attendance as club or stadium shows.
Imagine a streaming system which was built to function more like a concert:
Live shows which can be watched online, allowing fans to support their favorite bands by paying with their attention.
All of the money coming in would go directly to the performers, with a small transaction taken for the streaming provider.
The prices would be cheaper than concert tickets — but the overhead for artists would also be lower.
Technologist Andy Baio recently proposed a Virtual Venue, which was awarded a Grant for the Web. According to the grant’s website, “By integrating the Web Monetization API, attendees can financially support the artists, organizers, and events they love simply by attending events or exploring the spaces they’ve designed.”
Creating an artist-friendly environment isn’t just about compensation, it’s about exploring new ways of balancing the relationship between creators and consumers — putting them on equal footing which enriches the experience for both.
Just a decade ago, independent films were everywhere. Many of them were extremely successful, aided in no small part by the rental service and plentiful streaming options provided by Netflix.
Now Netflix is more of a cable network than an independent film supporter. It promotes its own content and a few dozen licensed properties instead of the near-infinite options it used to contain.
With even large-budget Hollywood films struggling to find a way to succeed in this new world, how can independent filmmakers hope to see the fruits of their labor?
Part of the problem is that we’re looking forward, when we could be looking back.
During the 80s and 90s, video rental services allowed audiences to find countless films they might not have heard of otherwise, an environment which continued into the early 21st century, where film blogs could lead them to explore an even deeper world of unknown titles.
Imagine a streaming service which ran on this philosophy — that there is an audience which wants to explore unknown corners of the film world.
With less and less cult classics, underground hits, and new independent films available to stream, that audience is hungry for new services with original, undiscovered content.
Recently, a new video platform called Cinnamon launched, hosting independent video and film content. It allows creators to calculate their revenue as a function of hours watched, and subscribers get access to Cinnamon content through their Coil account.
The platform is gaining traction. Aided by Grant for the Web, Media artist and Director Annie Berman will stage the worldwide premiere of her film The Faithful on the Cinnamon platform. Audiences members who use Web Monetization to purchase a ticket will gain access to special bonus events.
These services have the ability to bring the artists and audience together. Filmmakers can provide commentary, fan interviews, or behind the scenes footage for an extra charge, allowing audiences to be a bigger part of the creative process than they would as silent viewers.
On a purely financial level, the game industry is one of the healthiest in the current climate. AAA games outgross Hollywood films, and there are countless independent success stories.
But on a peer-to-peer level, there are many conventions which stand in the way of a functional relationship between creators and consumers. Many developers of successful indie games still struggle to make a profit.
Interledger allows for fractional payments, something that could solve many of the issues with game creation compensation.
If multiple developers, creators, artists and sound designers work on a game, they can each receive a fraction of the profits.
If a player enjoyed specific soundtracks or game levels, they could pay the responsible parties, providing valuable feedback on the game’s direction in the process.
A recent game development jam called JS13K had a category for web monetized content, which developers deployed in a variety of new ways. A few of them give us a preview web monetized gaming industry could look like.
In one game, Coil subscribers had access to a special exploration mode, where they could explore levels without danger. One game allowed players access to a level editor, where they could import extra levels or create their own.
Some games had extra levels that were unlocked for players with Coil accounts.
There are even more interesting applications for web monetization at the intersection of gaming and live events.
Some online games have explored new ways of playing with player interaction — such as Epic’s massive hit Fortnight, which has started hosting concert series for major artists, film screenings, and other interactive events.
Imagine this type of event reworked in a space which can accommodate independent artists — where players can explore to the soundtrack of undiscovered bands, watch all kinds of films in social settings, and make certain the money goes directly to the creators.
It’s time to lay the foundations of a human scale web
The raw materials are ready.
The core building block would be a system of exchanges built not around corporations, but around creators and consumers, keeping in mind their wants and needs.
If these networks can lead to audiences building their own marketplaces running on the same central philosophies, then we’ll see a rise in the creation of tools for these kinds of services — which could result in exponential growth of these new markets.
Micropayments aren’t just a novel way of paying for small transactions. By focusing on bite-sized payments, we may be able to stop focusing on large numbers, and instead direct that energy towards the building of healthy communities. Or more accurately, systems which allow healthy communities to build themselves.
The Future of Micropayments
On November 5th, 2020, I’ll be hosting a small conference to talk about the future of creators, peer to peer and the future of web payments.
It’s called The Future of Micropayments.
If anything in this article struck a nerve or you want to explore more, I highly encourage you to attend.
Unlike many real life and virtual conferences, we’re working with a new online platform that will have room for small meetups, networking, and birds of a feather talks.
We hope that it will be a chance for people to meet from many different backgrounds and talk about what could happen in the next decade of the web. You can sign up here by November 4th, 2020!
Questions? Comments? Ask me on Twitter.
Thanks to Anselm Hook and B. Greenstein for help on this article. Images courtesy of Pexels.