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 Netribution.co.uk, FundYourFilm.com 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="$ilp.uphold.com/iq6dEJDJGGQ7">. If you look in the source code of the New Yorker you’ll see <meta name="monetization" content="$spsp.coil.com/donate/condenast”/>.

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.

Background

Netribution soft launched on January 1st 2000, with our lead story that AOL was buying Time Warner. We didn't have a plan on how to pay the writers, beyond ‘get VC money’, and closed 99 weekly issues and one dotcom crash later. We relaunched in January 2006 amidst Web 2.0, when Google Ads looked like a way to print money just by getting people to visit our site. Netribution 2 let anyone post indie film related articles, but as new writers added fresh film articles, cartoons, interviews, reviews and news, and traffic grew — our $100 first month in Ads revenue shrank, as Google's Publisher Network grew and the relative value of ‘attention’ shrank with it. After a few more years, the only people posting content on Netribution were PR companies, link farms and me (sorry!) like a tiny microcosm of the wider web, where almost the only funding model for 'free' content outside of Wikipedia and Guardian's donation drives, had become the ad industry.

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