State of Web Monetization Ecosystem in 2020
Web Monetization made huge strides in 2020. The ecosystem of micropayment-based creators and developers truly expanded, with Coil, Grant for the Web, Cinnamon, Puma Browser and many others working hard to offset the ad-reliant products of big tech.
Web Monetization (or “micropayments”) is a technology that aims to empower users rather than big tech and the ad industry.
Monetization systems like advertisements, closed marketplaces, and subscription services each have their own set of problems, and users often end up having to navigate varying amounts of all of them in their daily lives, costing time, money, and attention.
With Coil, users pay a small monthly fee, and in exchange stream micropayments on web monetized sites. Meanwhile, creators can provide exclusive content and features for end-users who stream micropayments.
In this post, we will provide an overview of the state of Web Monetization ecosystem in 2020, look into organizations responsible for expanding the ecosystem, and take a look towards the future.
Many of the organizations involved in the world of Web Monetization started only a couple years back, and in 2020 the ecosystem begin to truly shine.
Grant for the Web provided almost a 100 grants to a wide range of projects related to the world of micropayments.
The Future of Micropayments conference debuted. More than a dozen talks and networking opportunities on the subject of micropayments.
Puma Browser gained popularity as the first browser with native support for Web Monetization. It was demoed at The Future of Micropayments Conference.
Cinnamon debuted as the first video sharing platform which features micropayments for content creators. Cinnamon is completely ad-free in an attempt to foster creativity which they feel is stifled when creators are beholden to their advertisers.
Both developers and development blogs caught on to micropayments - dev.to, Hackernoon, and Hashnode all added support for web monetization for individual blogs and each site became web monetized itself.
The world of micropayments is looking bright in 2021 as new projects come to fruition and organizations like Grant for the Web, Coil and others grow the ecosystem
Web Development community
Who is Web Monetized:
- Discover: coil.com/explore
- Comedy Bundle: coil.com/comedy
- Imgur Emerald: imgur.com/emerald
- Twitch: help.coil.com/for-creators/twitch-stream
Grant for the Web
- JS13K Games Entries: js13kgames.com/entries/2020/30
- JS13K Winners: js13kgames.com/#winners-webmonetization
Video Platform and tools for creators: cinnamon.video
Exposure Photo community: changes.exposure.co/monetize-your-stories-with-coil-com-161336
The Payments Problem
Any way you measure it, the majority of web payment systems are stuck in the past. Web browsers themselves were never designed for payments and have not evolved over time to incorporate them. In fact, browsers really haven't changed much at all. Flashback a couple of decades and browsers are more or less the same, while the web itself has changed dramatically. Online payment systems continue to mimic those of the real world. They are clunky and old-school. Customers subscribe to multiple payment systems and struggle to keep track of them.
At the end of 2020, online payments leave much to be desired. Canceling subscriptions is purposefully complicated. For single payments, customers constantly have to whip out credit cards and fill out redundant forms with personal info, even for small, trivial purchases. As a user, getting access to the content we want means dealing with an unruly number of content delivery sites and/or independent sites, each with its own unique payment model, each with its own set of quirks. It is expensive not only in terms of money but also in time and attention, and it's all too much for one person to deal with.
All of these problems arise from web browsers' lack of a payment system. Allegedly, a payment system was attempted sometime in the late 90s (as evidenced by the HTTP 402 error code “Payment Required”) but the less than tech-savvy folks in finance at the time rejected it.
Over the years, many methods of monetizing web content have appeared and disappeared.
But currently, the dominant method of monetizing the web is through advertising. News sites, social media, and other content mills have superimposed image, video, and text ads throughout their sites like bumper stickers, compromising the overall user experience of the web.
Because the ad industry needs to know everything about us in order to serve the correct ads, web browsing has become less about acting on the user's behalf, and more about extracting as much information as possible from them, privacy be damned. Third-party cookies, tracking scripts, popups, and the loud, distracting ads they serve are ubiquitous. The web has suffered as a result. Once a source of information, community, and engagement, it is now a source of stress, violation, and distraction.
The Browser Problem
Currently, web browsers like Chrome are all-in on the ad model of the web. These browsers exist in service of tech giants like Google. whose primary motive is siphoning as much user information out of the browser as possible. Many in the tech world have been raising alarm bells over the years, with few changes. Firefox has led some recent effort to block certain types of tracking cookies, but Mozilla is still financially reliant on Google. And Google themselves are at least making an effort to slowly phase out third party cookies.
But it doesn't change the fact that today's browsers are misaligned with their users. As cyborg anthropologist and calm technology advocate Amber Case argues in her Medium piece, "We’re Missing an Entire Universe of Web Payments", browsers are no longer designed at human scale. Case believes the advertising model has had a "disproportionate and negative impact on the web" and it's hard to disagree. But there aren't many alternatives available for creators to monetize their content. Case sees three current models: "closed marketplaces, recurring subscriptions, and invasive advertising." Unfortunately, none of these are great choices for small to medium-sized creators. In the current environment, Case notes, there is no system for paying for a single comic or episode of content, a single track or album streamed, or for small tips, among many other examples of creative web content. There is an ocean of great content out there without a system monetizing it, and at a time when many creatives are truly struggling.
A Solution to the Payments Problem
Web Monetization aims to reduce reliance on ads in order to make the web more privacy-focused and user friendly, and to do away with many of the clunky, old models of online payments such as paywalls, closed marketplaces, and having to manage an absurd number of monthly subscriptions. The costs of these models come not only in the form of money but in the form of time and attention. In Coil’s case, web monetization reduces everything to a small monthly payment. In exchange, users make payments automatically as they browse sites that are web monetized. This enables developers to deliver exclusive and bonus content to end-users without paywalls or forms to fill out, seamlessly and instantly. And on the flip side, creators get paid proportionally to the amount of time users spend enjoying their content. It makes the act of content creation and consumption more of a conversation shared between two individuals, much like the original web intended.
Recently, some major organizations have adopted web monetization, such as WordPress with their Coil plugin. Others, like popular image community Imgur, have developed Emerald, an exclusive Coil content service. Major culture blogs such as Pitchfork, The Hard Times, and Reductress, along with many others, have adopted micropayments on their sites. Others like Tech Dirt, have gone completely ad-free and adopted micropayments as their sole means of revenue. And plenty of newcomers have debuted, like Cinnamon, the first video sharing platform that supports its creators through micropayments rather than ads. As the tech becomes more popular, larger amounts of web traffic, maybe even a majority will become web monetized. Many tech-savvy folks in the industry are hoping to see a sea change occur in the realm of online payments, and see web monetization as the agent for this change.
The core of web monetization consists of a few larger organizations surrounded by a wide array of up and comers, individual developers, and startups. Currently, the only company acting as a provider is Coil. Coil began in 2018, launched by Stefan Thomas and the team. Coil is a multifaceted platform, functioning both as a means to make micropayments via web browsing and also for monetizing blogging and other creative works.
The idea is fairly straightforward. Users sign up for a single subscription via Coil for $5 per month. Then they browse the web with a micropayments-enabled browser like Puma, or alternatively, with a Coil extension enabled.
Then, as they browse sites that are web monetized, they make tiny payments of crypto continuously based on time-on-site. The more time you spend browsing a site, the more crypto you stream back in return.
On the flip side, creators who want to web monetize their site first create a digital wallet through a service such as Uphold or GateHub. They then add a small bit of HTML to their website which points to their digital wallet. At this point, their site is effectively "web monetized". Payments stream into their wallets nearly instantly as users stream their content.
The whole process is seamless and scales up and down perfectly proportional to the amount of traffic a site receives. It's also currency-agnostic. You can stream content from practically anywhere in the world, and your digital wallet provider is likely able to convert to your country's currency. If the tech truly takes off, it could render paywalls, endless subscriptions, and privacy-violating ads a relic of the past.
Coil Partnerships and Support
Another important part of Coil is its discover section. There you can find a frequently updated list of sites that support micropayments, divided into a wide array of categories such as “Games”, “Web Dev”, and “Music” amongst others. One particular section deserves highlighting, Coil’s comedy bundle. As the folks at Coil, like many in the tech world, are fans of comedy, they have recently partnered with a large number of popular comedy sites, hoping to draw attention to new features and exclusive content available only to readers with micropayments enabled. Over 30 web monetized comedy sites are featured in this new section, with more highlighted each week in Coil’s Staff Picks.
Another big win for Coil came this year in the form of a partnership with popular image hosting site Imgur. The end result is Imgur’s new feature, Emerald. Imgur users with Coil subscriptions are given the opportunity to opt-in to Emerald, enabling a wide array of new features. The first and most important feature is ad-free browsing on desktop and their Android app, which includes blocking of display ads and promoted posts.
It also enables two desktop-only features: the ability to block up to 100 tags in order to customize your browsing experience, and enhanced commenting in the ability to directly upload video and images into comments. And finally, it provides Emerald users up to three accolades per day to give to posts users deem worthy of additional attention.
Coil and Video Streaming
One of Coil’s big initial partnerships, way back in 2018, was with streaming platform Twitch.
In fact, no Coil account or payment pointer is required at all. Coil’s partnership with Twitch means that streams coming in from users with Coil accounts are converted automatically to Twitch Bits. A bot then periodically checks the partner or affiliate’s balance and deposits the Bits into the proper account when it reaches a certain level. This partnership is easily one of the most seamless applications of micropayments yet.
But for streamers who prefer YouTube, Coil has made it very easy to get going as well. Under “Settings” in Coil, users can find a “Monetize Content” menu item. Here, there are sections for Youtube and Twitch. As Twitch requires no setup, YouTube is currently the only option available. Clicking “Connect” allows users to connect their YouTube and Coil accounts. Once they are connected, micropayments are enabled for that YouTube account and payments will begin streaming in.
Finally, there is a new video streaming platform, Cinnamon, which bills itself as the first video platform to use micropayments as its primary means of compensating its creators.
Cinnamon aims to, in their words “develop engaging and easily-sharable content in a very open community-driven environment”.
It was created, much like Coil and other web monetized sites, as a way of combating advertisements as the go-to method of monetizing content online. In a blog post introducing their product, they describe this problem in detail and see ads not only as invasive and distracting but also stifling creatively. Creators, they believe, are “beholden to their advertisers” if they choose the ad model. If advertisers aren’t happy with a creator’s content, they will bail or coerce the creator into compromising. This is not good for creators with new and innovative creations. Cinnamon wishes to subvert this model by making a video platform where, as a creator, you are “directly supported by your viewers.”
In the recent past, many developers of browser and mobile-based games have relied on ads for revenue, or alternatively closed marketplaces. Each has its own set of drawbacks which we have previously discussed. In an attempt to wean developers off these models and boost awareness for micropayments, a few indie gaming organizations have run game competitions this year with micropayments in mind.
Later, they added more features, giving Coil users bonus coins and faster cooldowns. Then in July of 2020, they received a grant from Grant for the Web, which they intend to use to expand their platform with web monetized games, along with tutorials and examples on the development of games that utilize the web monetization API.
Shortly after receiving the grant, Enclave affiliate JS13kGames added a web monetization category to their yearly hyper-casual indie gaming competition, which forces developers to create a game at a maximum size of 13 kilobytes. The idea is to force developers to get creative and make games that are playable across platforms and systems new and old. Andrzej Mazur, the site’s creator, has emphasized the importance of enabling developers not only to make money through games but also of directly supporting other developers simply by playing their games.
He instructs developers who wish to enter his competition to give back to those supporting their games with “additional content or expanding game mechanics” - i.e. using the web monetization API in new, innovative ways.
And this year’s developers did just that. Many impressive entries for JS13kGames’ web monetization category were submitted this year, the full list of which can be found here. 1st prize in this category went to Ninja vs. Evilcorp by Remi Vansteelandt, a level based game where players play as a ninja attempting to infiltrate an evil corporation. Players with Coil-based micropayments enabled are treated to an extra practice mode where they are allowed to breeze through levels without being detected.
Gaming engine Defold created its own competition with micropayments in mind late in 2020. The Web Monetization Challenge 2020 ran for the month of November and centered around the theme “Secrets”, encouraging developers to incorporate something with this general theme into their games, and requiring developers to use web monetization in some capacity. Winners were announced on Dec. 14th, with top prize going to “Moonshot: The Great Espionage”. The full list of winners and their games can be found here.
Many popular web-based games are taking advantage of micropayments to expose special features and decrease reliance on ads. Take the popular mobile-friendly game Sushi Party for example. Users play as a snake that navigates a terrain covered in sushi, the consumption of which causes the snake’s length to progressively increase along with game difficulty.
Originally supported by ads, it has since developed an ad-free mode exclusive for Coil subscribers, who also enjoy additional perks in the form of free “gacha balls” for every 5 min of play. Increasingly innovative ways of supporting micropayments in games are sure to come as the technology gains popularity and developers wean themselves off of ad-based revenue.
Web Monetization in the Development Community
Though many organizations and individuals are responsible for pushing micropayment technology forward, it is a small, but growing development community that is responsible for the leg work. A developer can easily implement micropayments into their web app, as instructed by one of the seminal micropayment sites, webmonetization.org. This site was created by the Web Platform Incubator Community Group (WICG), in affiliation with w3.org. Its primary motive is to guide developers and other enthusiasts through the Web Monetization API, which is being proposed as a W3C standard, and it is the go-to for anyone new to the world of micropayments and is eager to get involved.
Unsurprisingly, developer blogs have been quick to adapt micropayments into their sites, likely hungry for a way to avoid the privacy issues involved with ads. Popular developer site dev.to adopted micropayments in multiple ways.
The site, which exists to create a supportive community of developers and emphasize “collaboration and networked learning”, saw the appeal not only in adopting micropayments overall, but to allow individuals in their site to web monetize.
With this in place, each individual blog on dev.to is monetized per user! A month later, the site itself became web monetized. Since then, the users of the site have had a lot to say on the subject, and are saying it via the “web monetization” tag.
Other development blogs and communities have shown themselves eager to similarly adapt. On the same day that Dev.to added their micropayments feature, dev blog Hackernoon added a similar feature.
The site has a wide reach, at over 3M+ readers per month. And micropayments are perfectly in line with their goals, which in their words are “publishing free high quality tech stories -without paywalls, pop-up ads, or a sense of entitlement”.
And more dev blogging sites keep coming onboard. Hashnode added the ability for users to web monetize their individual blogs back in August.
Tech Dirt took things one step further and not only web monetized, but went completely ad-free. In their piece titled “Our New Monetization Experiment: Coil & The Web Monetization Protocol”, they describe their reasoning for the shift and their desire to enact changes in line with “the promise of the early web, built on open protocols and standard.”
It seems there is a shared desire in the community to subvert the typical means for monetizing web content. And as increasing numbers of developers change their methods, the web will change along with it.
Another big piece of the web monetization ecosystem that has expanded over the past year is social media. Two web monetized social media sites launched in 2020: gFam and mg.social. Both aim to provide an alternative to traditional social media models where the experience is a lure for advertising. And in both cases, ads have been replaced by direct payments via Web Monetization, along with an additional tipping feature. Let’s take a look at these two sites and see what’s ahead for them.
gFam, a recent grantee from Grant for the Web, aims to compete with social media sites like Instagram.
Users can post a selfie or other photo along with a short blurb of text. These posts can be liked and commented on by other users of the site, in a familiar and intuitive manner.
What makes gFam stand apart from Instagram is the ability to monetize. This is accomplished in two ways.
First, users can directly tip another user through their posts. The tip button displays on the detail and post feed, along with the number of tips received. Users can specify the magnitude of the tip, large or small. The tipping functionality utilizes XUMM, a digital wallet and payment app, to provide tips in the form of small bits of cryptocurrency.
Second, Coil users automatically send micropayments as they browse through gFam posts. Select a post from the feed, and as you view it, Coil streams payments directly to the author. The process is transparent and seamless.
gFam has so far provided the equivalent of $11,000+ to its users through tips alone in the eight months since its inception, steadily increasing by the month. You can follow the site’s progress by visiting their Coil blog here where they provide monthly stats and discuss other events and landmarks.
For those who are looking for a Facebook alternative, mg.social provides a great web monetized social media experience.
Mg.social’s interface also feels familiar, like a throwback to a Facebook design from the past.
Users at mg.social can post long or short blurbs of text along with photos, videos, links, locations, polls and even mp3s for musicians and podcasters. Posts are taggable and searchable. A handy sidebar allows easy navigation through the site and helps users keep track of their content. Additionally, there are direct messages, notifications, and friend features. An impressive amount of functionality for a social media site less than a year old!
Like other web monetized sites, it automatically pays content creators via Coil as their content is browsed. And, like gFam, it has additional payments in the form of tips via XUMM.
Again, the multiple means of payment makes this experience truly unique on the web. And of course, the site is free of distracting, user experience ruining advertisements, making for a calmer social media experience.
According to their blog, a mobile app is in the works as well as major style overhaul, so be sure to keep tabs on the site’s progress. Follow mg.social’s Coil blog here for more info and updates.
Growing the Ecosystem
As of late 2020, web monetization seems to be past its infancy and nearly ready to stand on its own. One of the biggest pushes forward is coming from Grant for the Web, an organization started by Coil in collaboration with Mozilla and Creative Commons. The goal of this organization is, in their words "to boost open, fair, and inclusive standards and innovation in Web Monetization." Grant for the Web seems to realize that growing the ecosystem means incentivizing developers, creators, and others in the tech world to create the future web, one piece at a time. Just like a grassroots political organization.
To this end, GftW set up a $100 million pool to boost open, fair, and inclusive standards and innovation in Web Monetization.
In mid-2020, individuals and organizations began receiving funds (a full list of 2020 grantees can be found here: grantfortheweb.org/grantees) with grants as high as $100,000 and down to $10,000 on the low end. Grants went out to grantees from a wide array of tech niches, from standards development, protocols, and APIs, indie gaming platforms, to blogging and social media platforms.
In addition to these grants, a larger grant was issued to the Artist Rescue Trust in December of 2020. At $299,000, it’s the largest award given out this year. The purpose of ART is to provide support for musicians impacted by COVID-19. Due to the virus’ impact on live performances and gatherings in general, musicians have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
Those who make a living from live performances and touring have lost their main source of income this year. ART is making an effort to support the artists most impacted by the pandemic. It is also planning on using funds from the grant to begin a web monetization training program for artists in order to, in their words “teach artists how to monetize their work and run their businesses-as-artists.”
The Future of Micropayments Conference
Another big step for Web Monetization came in the Fall of 2020 with The Future of Micropayments Conference, an online un-conference which was organized by cyborg anthropologist and speaker Amber Case along with programmer Anselm Hook.
The event began with host Amber Case conversing with media analyst and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff. They discussed the web's bright, user-oriented beginnings and its slow morph into something more nefarious, dominated by big tech which exploits users in search of ad revenue.
Stefan Thomas, CEO of Coil, gave an overview of Coil and the attention economy - how online payments affect not only revenue but time and attention, among other related topics. After this came follow up from Puma Browser CEO Yuriy Dybskiy. Dybskiy discussed Puma Browser, the first web browser with native support for Web Monetization. He gave an overview of the mobile browser and demoed some great features such as charity mode - the ability to web monetize any type of web browsing and stream the revenue toward charity. For those feeling guilty for browsing too much social media, for instance, charity mode can be enabled as a counterbalance to send some money to a good cause. Yuriy also mentioned an important point about the design of web browsers - he sees very little that has changed fundamentally in the past decades. As such, Dybskiy intends to make Puma an innovator in this arena.
The conference also provided a great experience for networking. It matched attendees based on shared interests for a series of 5-minute one-on-one meetings during breaks between talks, allowing people to mingle and network like they might during a typical offline conference. There were also productive group discussions based on micropayment-related subjects like art, development, gaming, design, and others. Many found these human-connection-oriented sessions to be one of the highlights of the conference, a major feat for an event taking place online.
The Future of Micropayments conference occurred at just the right time, as the technology itself was just beginning to make waves. The organizers are hoping for the micropayments ecosystem to continue growing over the course of the next year. And based on the success of this year’s event, they are planning to continue hosting yearly conferences on the topic, the next of which will likely take place in Fall of 2021.
We have a full write-up of the conference, which you can read here on our blog.
Spreading Adoption and Awareness
From 2018 to 2020 web monetization grew rapidly, both in terms of the ecosystem and in terms of general awareness. Many major landmark events have taken place, from big-name adoptions to the first-ever online conference on the topic. Many are looking toward the future. Will the technology truly take off? Will there be wide adoption? Will the ad model slowly be rendered a relic of the past? One prominent talk at the Future of Micropayments Conference addressed this very topic.
Jeremiah Lee of InVision laid out a plan with 3 steps for the technology to "win". The first step, Lee believes, is web monetization needs more providers. Having providers in the EU would be a great boost for the technology as many in the EU are, as Lee says, "desperate to counter the American companies that control the Internet." It's hard to argue against this.
Next, Lee emphasized the importance of better branding. The esoteric language surrounding micropayments is not helping its popularity. Lee suggests something like ‘the web multipass’, or something catchy that gets the point across and leaves out all the confusing tech jargon, a hindrance to wider adoption.
Finally, Lee believes we need an outreach effort to get a few content giants onboard, like NPR, PBS, or Wikipedia for example. So far, web monetization has had some success in getting small to medium-sized content creators on board, like the aforementioned culture blogs Pitchfork and Reductress, but a true monolith like NPR or PBS would bring real legitimacy to the movement.
Looking Toward 2021
There were a lot of big moments in 2020. Major events were held to raise awareness and grow the ecosystem of micropayments. Many new, exciting projects that feature micropayments debuted.
Though Coil, GftW, and many others in the micropayments world began a few years back, we will look at 2020 as the year that micropayments truly started to take off as a serious contender in the world of online payments. And this is only the beginning of a long journey, consisting of small progressive changes. There is a lot to be excited about in the years ahead. Here’s looking to 2021!
- Amber, Toby and Puma team