Netribution is 21 today; expirements with Web Monetization

There's not been a new post here in over four years, so maybe Netribution's 21st birthday today is a good time to update on a little expirment with "Web Monetization" (their zee, not ours).

Web Monetization is a way to donate to the sites you visit without needing to have a separate subscription for them or even having to hit a donate button. After signing up with a provider (at the moment there's just Coil, who charge $5/month), as you wonder the web you drop tiny anonymous golden breadcrumbs – to any site with a wallet. I've long been dreaming of such a system, paying out a subscription proportional to time spent — so soon signed up, and now as I wonder the web, the extension I added to Firefox occasionally flashes green in the toolbar to say I’m paying/donating as I read: perhaps it’s the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, or the New Yorker for an article about the Queen’s Gambit.

Coil claims to pay out $0.36 per hour —falling once someone has spent $4.50 in a month— which might not sound like much, but compare earnings for a 4 minute track or short film: $0.024 on Coil versus Spotify’s $0.00437 or YouTube’s $0.00074. In other words, you’d need 42 plays of a song with Web Monetization to make $1, against 131 on Apple, 228 times on Spotify and 1351 times on YouTube (ref).

So I created a wallet via Uphold and added it to, and my personal sites on August 18th last year. Adding it just meant putting a single metatag to the header of the page pointing to my wallet – <meta name="monetization" content="$">. If you look in the source code of the New Yorker you’ll see <meta name="monetization" content="$”/>.

I had low expectations as Coil isn’t known and the concept is new – so it faces that vicious circle of not enough content to get subscribers, and not enough subscribers to get publishers. But, so far these sites have made £1.15! It's hardly giong to save journalism – but the tech works, and it's left me with a small bit of hope that following other attempts to solve 'subscription for the open web' – Flattr, Brave's Basic Attention Token and Scroll — we've finally got something that, like http or html, is a web protocol rather than a product from one corporation or specific browser.

While this of course opens up new challenges (Coil pays out to whoever puts a wallet on a page, but there's no way to prove yet they "own" the content on that page), it comes at a time when most web publishers are so starved of cash they've surrendered to advertising stalkbots, luring us in with clickbait headlines and opinion-news catering to our wishes and hopes, regardless if it's true or not. For as long as attention is more valuable than quality, we end up with 'scamdemic' content literally killing people. The adstalker attention economy has so many profitable tentacles –- from infrastructure to data farms to lawyers to to shock jocks to social media companies – the unfortunate truth that disinformation online has made the pandemic so more deadly and harder to control is regularly overlooked. The market isn't self-regulating at sufficient speed, while legislators face a very tough task to try and distinguish in law between free speech and life-threatening media, again not resolvable at sufficient speed. In the meantime there must be better ways to fund, and therefore incentivise, what the world consumes online.


"Dear lover cinema, forgive me"

When I look through my adult life so far there are a few constants - the love of family and some good friends - yet the most regular rhythm, the most dependable refrain is that of change and disruption, of uncertainty. One thing, though, holds true through all of that, and it’s odd that I only seem to recognise it now. When I enter the quiet dark hall of a cinema, arms laden with sugar or beer perhaps; when I find a seat as centrally as possible, ideally with no-one in front of me… as the lights dim, my heart pounds a little as if on a plane about to take off. And as the screen starts to glow, as another world emerges to seduce me, my day’s problems begin to fall from me like a man dropping his clothes before he jumps in the sea.

It is strange that it has taken me so long to articulate this - not just in web text - but in my mind too. The distractions of the day, the worries and anxieties and frustrations about this abuse of corporate or government power, or that slight from someone dear, may be eased a little through meditation, sometimes a lot through a great book, but none for me so totally as through a good film in a darkened space. Even a mediocre one. These last few days my worries have been transformed into something hopeful through the brilliant yet McBlockbuster Wreck It Ralph, the visceral if hackneyed Oblivion, and then the powerful epic Midnight’s Children. Imperfection is not a problem, I seek just a voyage to a convincing new world, and people I can pin my internal struggles to, and reason to think much bigger than my own worries for a while.

Cinema feels like a lover I’ve depended on for as long as I can remember, but too rarely stop to say thank you, to recognise its wisdom and power. And this in turn reminds me that although Netribution is mostly tumbleweed, dust and spam links now, it reflected my excitement at where cinema will travel to next, in a connected world of ever cheaper kit and decentralised distribution.

The last thing I wrote on this site was nearly two years ago. I was a keen digital cinema entrepreneur taking the lessons from Shooting People and self-distributing the funding book into ventures new. And then my sister died after a brutal battle with cancer - and as I started to get over that, a friend killed herself. And I couldn’t talk about it here, indeed I still don’t really feel skilled enough. So I said nothing, but begun to question almost everything, Our current media space helped neither of them, while the superfast hyperconnected ad-driven pervasive digital frenzy that’s replacing it seems even worse equipped. While overflowing with ideas and research projects and possible new businesses, I floundered, unsure what would kind of media world would have been better for them. And I still don’t really know how to get to that, save for the fact that a good film can be as healing as a medicine, a great story as powerful as a hug or good conversation. 

So, dear lover cinema, forgive me my unfaithfulness, my absence and neglect. You’ve been there for me when others haven’t. You’ve made me mad and struck me sane. You’ve shaped so many of my views - often misguidedly and with the values of one race, class and gender - but also most regularly with a reminder that what makes me human and hurt, makes everyone human and hurt - it’s shared by us all. Thank you. Let’s begin again.


Netribution at ten years


Sometimes it takes a good film to put things right. Like when your computer needs to be rebooted to get it working normally, or the benefits of a good night's sleep. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was just that calibration, a tale of doing the right thing, of endurance and redemption, and a reminder that of how important cinema is to me, and how great cinema has far less to do with technology than it does to do with the questions, hopes and problems that face us as a species.

Ten years ago, on the second of Februa

ry 2000, Netribution formally launched, after a month of tests, at Peeping Tom's short film gathering at Global Cafe in Golden Square.

It's hard to recognise myself in the photo from the night - alongside fellow co-founders Wendy Bevan Mogg and the legend that is Tom Fogg - bubbling with passionate naiveté and blind optimism. A more innocent time, before YouTube and torrents and Bush and 9-11, when David Cameron was still head of PR for Carlton TV, and publishing a new issue once a week seemed impressive. Now tweets come every few seconds I miss that space which was forced upon us in the early days by dial-up modems - the gaps between thought, writing, coding and the reader that might have prevented some of my more indulgent rants of later years.

I can't find the launch page of the site anywhere. The first front page I can find is pulled from the Wayback machine and is Issue #24 from May of that year, there's other front pages with broken links from Issue #47 (our 2000 Christmas issue), Issue #56 and Issue #62 which has more of the site intact. The old features page probably gives the best idea of what we were about then.

As I searched my hard drives to find our first issue, I found the first barely coherent business plan from November 99 through to the Netribution 2 presentation from November 04 which reads like a naïve sales brochure for Web 2.0. Even in 99 our plan was filled with talk of 'open source webisodes' that people could remix and add to across the world and a network of indie screening venues and groups across the country for filmmakers to distribute their work to directly.


Custodians of a miracle

I'd forgotten I wrote this - about the earth, debt and the challenges for filmmakers - from India almost 18 months ago. But now as Copenhagan enters the last few make or break hours it seemed relevant..

earthfromspace.jpgOn my tenth day in the jungle, the morning after the Shivaratri party, I finally met my first native monkey. Almost human size, like Hanuman, with a white body and black face, and arms long enough to give me a good clobber, he thundered in with graceful side swings over my tent to the tree above - thousands of leaves heralding his arrival like confetti. The sound at first was so great, I thought perhaps I was under attack. We looked each other in the eye and he reclined on a branch before turning to me suddenly, scowling and angry. He indicated beneath him - a pile of pink toilet paper someone had left under the tree and gave me a universal gesture with his outstretched palm: 'clean this shit up', before leaving fast with his entourage through the trees. The conversation couldn't have been clearer.


UK's draconian anti-piracy proposal dissected

Image by Flickr's Tanakawho So the UK government is looking at following in French President Sarkozy's footsteps by forcing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to monitor thier customer's web usage and disconnect them (after a warning) if they are found to be downloading illegally. This switch of legal responsibility from the copyright owner to the internet provider is significant - but more alarmingly so is the change of web access into something which can be monitored and controlled by the people providing you with access. I'm supposed to be taking time out in India, but couldn't resist sharing my thoughts when I heard the news.

Internet Protocol is built on the all-data-is-equal model, where anonymous packets of information are sent from servers to users, with no-one in between having the faintest idea what that data is. The switch to a system (supposing it can be securely built) which identifies this traffic and acts as a result is a culture shift in the fundamental nature of the web - potentially allowing, for example, ISPs to block politically sensitive material, or provide faster, more stable web access to big fee-paying webisites over slow ones.

Piracy is of course a terrifying prospect for the film industry if it simply heralds a culture of not paying for content. Unlike the music sector, non-piratable aspects of the film business are rarely profitable (while Radiohead makes over three quarters of its income from touring, most films are lucky to cover their marketing costs for a cinema release). Furthermore, while you can make a film on no budget, it's hardly the same as recording an album in your bedroom or mastering on your laptop; the lack of money will be obvious on screen. Films are the most expensive artform going, and a future where users do not expect to pay for the films they watch at home would lead us into the hands of the Orange Film Finance board from the cinema ads, putting up the budget of a film in return for brand exposure. It's a horrible prospect.

But at the same time, the Recording Industry of America's heavy handed approach with music downloaders (sending huge fines and court summons to young children and dying seniors) has done nothing but cement resentment  and hostility to the music industry . Music sales still fall and downloading still rises. The proposal, currently under discussion, may help the film industry avoid considering new business models and ways of operating in the short term, but it also entrenches an us-vs-them attitude and hardening the resolve of pirates while inevitably forcing ISPs to put up their costs, alienating consumers. And what too of shared networks and free-wifi - will public libraries, bars, cafes and National Express trains (and indeed my own house) have to turn off open access for fear that someone somewhere will be using the bandwidth to download something illegal, forcing the ISP to shut down access for all? Potentially terrible PR for the film industry, at a time when survival seems pinned on building a positive relationship with audiences.

barbed_wire_clouds_tanakawho2.jpgI'd also argue that the jury is still out over the impact of piracy on lower-budget, niche and independent films. Some would say that it acts as a 'try before you buy' on high-risk / high-quality films with unknown actors and directors - ie non-studio films. Researching and writing one of the first major market reports into making money from creative assets in the digital age, for Informa in 2001, and watched the shifts ever since, including the huge DRM backlash, and the massive increase in previously unknown MySpace (etc) acts who rise to prominence through giving their music away for free, not to mention Radiohead's highly successful experiment and Four Eyed Monsters, I'm inclined to agree that at a certain level, peer-to-peer sharing is a useful form of marketing. Little Miss Sunshine was widely available to download and watch online through sites like PeakVid and Alluc, yet people I know who first watched it online went on to buy multiple copies - for themselves and friends as gifts.

The people who stand to lose the most in cash terms are perhaps the studios with major tentpole releases, where losing 30% of DVD sales to piracy on say Lord of The Rings, is a significant sum of money when you consider it has made $6bn... (cont.)