The Future of Micropayments 2020 Conference Overview
Online monetization systems have long been in need of an overhaul. The current models have numerous problems, not the least of which are massive privacy issues in the case of advertisements.
Web Monetization offers a real alternative to privacy-violating ads and subscription models that do not scale. As the tech gained popularity, a pair of prominent, enthusiastic tech folks decided it was time for a conference on the subject.
On Nov. 4, 2020, "The Future of Micropayments" un-conference took place, organized by cyborg anthropologist Amber Case and programmer Anselm Hook, as an attempt to promote, educate, and provide a networking experience surrounding this new exciting technology.
Those who attended found a unique conference experience that included some significant firsts. Not only was it the first conference on the topic of micropayments, but the first conference to be web monetized itself.
Puma Browser team members were of course eager to be involved and acted as both speakers and attendees. We present to you this recap of a rare, online un-conference experience.
- The Future of Micropayments conference, the very first on the topic of modern micropayments, took place online on Nov. 4, 2020, organized by cyborg anthropologist Amber Case and programmer Anselm Hook
- Startup CEOs, independent developers, creatives, and a wide range of other enthusiasts attended and gave talks on the subject with 15~ presentations given, including an introductory fireside chat and a relaxing ambient music performance at the midpoint.
- Web Monetization is a new technology for making online payments.
- The goal is to modernize online payments by addressing the concerns surrounding scaling, privacy, user experience, and other issues with the current models of monetizing web content such as ads, paywalls, and subscriptions.
- Coil is currently the first WM provider enabling users to make micropayments. Coil's CEO Stefan Thomas discussed "the attention economy" and how payments affect not only revenue but time and attention. He provided an overview of Coil and its place in the micropayments ecosystem and discussed the many problems with payments that Coil attempts to solve.
- Founder and CEO Yuriy Dybskiy demoed mobile app Puma Browser, the first web browser to natively support Web Monetization. He emphasized Puma's three areas of focus: Payments, Privacy, and Design, in which Puma aims to innovate. He also discussed some exciting new features like "charity mode", which monetizes any type of web browsing for a good cause.
- Indie gamers were a major presence at the conference. Andrezej Mazur of js13kGames gave a talk that focused on two main obstacles for indie game developers: discoverability and monetization. He also discussed his platform's web monetization contest and their presence at MozFest among other topics.
- Grant for the Web, perhaps the biggest driver in expanding the ecosystem of web monetization, gave a talk on their organization, which recently gave numerous startups and individuals awards for innovative technologies related to web monetization.
- Unique networking experiences were a major component, which matched attendees for one-on-one 5m sessions based on shared interests, along with group discussions for artists, gamers, developers, and many others.
The Future of Micropayments Conference Overview
The Future of Micropayments Conference took place online on November 5, 2020 and by all measures was a great success!
The purpose of the event was to discuss the current status and future of online payments, primarily via micropayments. Programmer Anselm Hook and Cyborg Anthropologist Amber Case co-organized the event. It attracted a congregation of international bloggers, game designers, artists, programmers and creators who have a shared interest in monetizing the web via micropayments. Case described it as more of a "salon" than a conference, and intentionally capped registrations to keep it informal, fun and loose.
The event was hosted by Nexus Events, a pre-beta startup that provided a much more engaging online conference experience than the typical Zoom call. Nexus did a great job of hosting and provided some exciting new features. Two of the best experiences in the conference were the break out rooms and the speed networking sessions, where each person could get paired with someone else for a 5 minute meeting. The pairings were not random either, but based on shared interest.
The conference began with a short session where you got to review personal introduction videos from other attendees. If you were interested in what they had to say, you could click “meet” and you’d be paired with them later in the day for a one on one meeting. This facilitated the process of networking via an online conference in an organic manner.
Micropayments, as used by companies like Coil, are tiny fractional payments made automatically based on how much time someone spends on a website. Creators enable web monetization by adding a simple payment id to an HTML tag on their site. This makes their site "web monetized", and end users subscribed with Coil or other providers make continual micropayments based on time-on-site.
Indie game developers can add web monetization tags to the site for their game. When someone visits the site, uses a Web browser like Puma Browser, has a web monetization extension installed, or is a Coil user, micropayments are made as long as the person is on the website. That's it. No subscriptions, ads, transaction fees, or paywalls to deal with.
How does it work?
Behind the scenes, Coil’s micropayments engine uses a cryptocurrency and a currency-agnostic ledger, Interledger. It allows seamless, near real-time payment transfers, allowing small fractions of a cent to “stream” into a creator’s account. Instead of larger amounts of money with account minimums, creators can get paid in small fractions with no transaction costs. Web Monetization also makes it easy to convert between currencies, making it ideal for the international web. The Web Monetization API is currently being proposed as a web standard through W3C (see webmonetization.org for more details).
It’s been only recently that technologies for micropayments are becoming mature. An attempt to incorporate payments into browsers was made in the 90s by Netscape, but it ultimately failed. Fast forward to now, cryptocurrencies and their related technologies have changed everything. As webmonetization.org notes, "Until recently, there hasn't been an open, neutral protocol for transferring money”. Interledger, the protocol behind Coil, was developed to provide a simple, ledger and currency-agnostic method to help push this industry into existence.
A History of Micropayments and the Web
After a welcome message from Amber Case, the conference began with a fireside chat between Case and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. The two discussed the early web, its formation, and its effect on the culture at the time. Case describes a primary motivating factor for this technology is to make an Internet with users in mind rather than giant, privacy violating advertising firms.
Browsers back in the 90s were known as "user-agents", which gave users the ability to communicate from one peer to another via a variety of protocols like FTP, IRC, POP (email), and others. Unfortunately, the web as a peer to peer network has long passed. What we have now is closer to a user information tracker that is not built for users, but to exploit them by collecting their data and serving them non stop ads. What's needed, Case argues, is something once again built for humans at human scale.
Rushkoff described early fears about the Internet being replaced by the "web" and how over time, this ended up transpiring. What started as a "peer to peer, open, interactive universe" eventually became something similar to television, dominated by nefarious corporate giants.
Rushkoff also noted how the early web struggled to combine traditional currencies and business practices with a very untraditional, new technology and the two did not quite work together as many had hoped. Today, Rushkoff sees micropayments as a technology that finally does match the dynamic, "super fluid" structure of the modern web, as Micropayments, just like web requests, can be made in real time without any obstructive paywalls, transaction fees etc.
Though many attendees also noted, similar payment structures have existed for decades outside of this current model. Kyle MacLean Smith, founder of SeedTreeDB, noted that micropayments have been used in the music industry since the 1950s as a means of paying artist royalties. Yuriy Dybskiy from Puma Browser saw the original iTunes Store in 2001 as a great example of a micropayment system, the first to offer single songs for $.99. And others like Ambrosia L, founder of Analog Dog Hair, noted the similarity between how she has been monetizing her work as a custom hair designer in Second Life. During the artist's group discussion near the middle of the conference, analogies between loot boxes in games were drawn. The benefits and drawbacks of this phenomena in gaming have been both praised and criticized over the years.
The rest of the talks were fast and frequent. Unlike a traditional conference, there was little need to pause between talks, and as such, time was used economically.
Coil and the Attention Economy
The first talk came from Coil CEO Stefan Thomas. He described his company as one that focused on "enabling open standards for micropayments on the web". Coil is a platform where users pay a monthly $5 fee and in exchange, are able to make micropayments based on time-on-site, gaining access to exclusive content seamlessly. Coil also functions as a blogging platform where users setup their payment pointer in Coil's settings and they immediately have a functioning web monetized blog.
Thomas began his talk by defining micropayments, which has an ambiguous definition. To banks, it's a payment less than $10,000. To Paypal, it's less than $12. But to Coil, it's a small fraction of a cent.
Thomas then went on to discuss barriers to the adoption of these kinds of micropayments. Processing costs make these kinds of micropayments impossible through the usual means. For example, a $0.45 cost on a $1 credit card charge is nearly prohibitively expensive. But Interledger's cost per charge is nearly $0, which is part of what makes micropayments at this scale possible.
Another barrier discussed was the mental cost per transaction. Asking a user to perform a series of steps, like clicking through a form and entering their info, to perform a charge of a few cents is asking a lot, too much when compared to the actual costs we are dealing with. Which is why this barrier has been removed from the process of making micropayments via Interledger.
Lastly, Thomas discussed use case barriers, and why it’s interesting to enable payments at a fraction of a cent. Enabling these kinds of small payments on the web actually creates new use cases which are different from our usual ways of thinking about payments. When you consume content on the web, you might spend hours going to different platforms to read blogs, play indie games, listen to music etc. Having to use a credit card for each bit of content you take in is too expensive in terms of cost and time. Whereas micropayments, automatically made to these creators as you take in their content, is an appropriately human scaled model.
Thomas ended his talk discussing how web monetization has affected content creators. Having a method of communicating with creators via micropayments creates a direct link from consumer to creator. This gives creators a more engaged user base. And engagement, he argued, predicts success. He compared an impersonal, classic payment system like PayPal where there is little engagement to Twitch, where there is often direct communication from fan to creator in real time. Thomas predicts the future success of platforms which enable this type of engagement.
Micropayments in Action
After Thomas' talk came an appropriate follow up from Yuriy Dybskiy, founder of Puma Browser. Puma Browser is a mobile web browser which is the first to integrate micropayments directly via Coil/Interledger. Dybskiy began by outlining the three pillars of Puma: Privacy, Payments, and Design. “Today, browsing is mostly sponsored by advertising, and we think we should revisit the original notion of browsers that were called 'user agents’”.
Dybskiy went on to suggest that the browser business model should be aligned with the user and the two ways to do this are subscriptions and micropayments. In his opinion, allowing users to directly and seamlessly make payments via the browser will allow us to monetize the web in a more sustainable way. The ad model, as he sees it, is not sustainable. It is fraught with privacy issues. Advertisers need to know everything about the user to serve relevant ads, which is how browsers have transformed from a user-agent to more of a tracking device.
As for design, Dybskiy noted that the look and feel of browsers have not changed much in the past 25 years, and he feels that there is a lot of room for innovation in this area, and Puma plans on being at the forefront of this innovation.
New Puma Browser Features
Dybskiy demoed some of Puma browser’s latest features. One feature was Puma's ability to enter "charity mode". This feature allows Puma to send money generated by browsing un-monetized sites to charity. If you are feeling guilty about browsing, say, Twitter, you can relieve your guilt by entering charity mode and, effectively, this monetizes all of your browsing for a good cause. Dybskiy then demonstrated browsing a typically paywalled blog. But this time, the blog was Coil. With micropayments enabled, the user has no paywall to deal with. The entire process is seamlessly done for you behind the scenes. Dybskiy then demonstrated some advantages to web monetization in the gaming world. He loaded up a game called Flood Escape which normally displays ads, but when browsing with Puma with micropayments enabled, you get the game ad free and with a shorter cool-down periods.
Indie games and Web Monetization
Web monetization is becoming a more popular topic among indie game creators. As with other types of web content, they too want to monetize their creations. While there is often great demand for games, there are frustratingly few ways to monetize them. Andrezej Mazur of js13kGames addressed two main issues in his talk which he saw indie game developers struggling with: discoverability and monetization.
Mazur described meeting people from Coil soon after one of his talks last year who got him hooked into the web monetization API. Two months later, js13kGames added a Web Monetization category to their competition. And two months later still, they showcased some of these games at the Mozilla's MozFest in London. There, they mingled with other developers and demonstrated the web monetization API in real time. Mazur even applied for and won a Grant for the Web, allowing him to have the web monetization category featured in his competition for an additional competition.
Mazur shared the creative ways that this year's winners implemented web monetized features in their games. One game featured "practice mode" for users with micropayments enabled, so users could literally cheat until they were ready to play for real. In another game, users could buy virtual items at a lower rate, making the game a bit easier. Finally, a puzzle game rewarded micropayment supporters more time to solve the puzzle.
Mazur noted that many front end developers are expressing a desire to enter the world of game development, but constantly face monetization issues. Advertising seems to be the most obvious and traditional method of monetizing, but increasingly less desirable option. “How do we help those who want to do full time game development?” Mazur asked, “What if we funded these games better?” He considered that the web monetization API might be the answer, as it allows creative ways for game developers to add features and upgrades without needing to add intrusive advertising. An, unlike the often flimsy returns of advertising, creators can get paid directly based on user time on site.
The First Web Monetized Online Conference
Toward the halfway point of the conference, attendees were treated with an ambient performance from Portland, OR experimental musician Crystal Quartez. Quartez's music was the perfect, ambient counter balance to the excited, over-caffeinated talks that had transpired previously. It was a healthy reminder to stretch, relax and take a break in the middle of an unusually fast paced conference.
Behind the scenes, Nexus Events added a payment pointer to the HTML code, turning their conference software into a web monetized site. This meant that The Future of Micropayments could be considered the first web monetized conference in web history! Crystal’s music piece was the first to be monetized. Expect this to become more and more of a norm in future online web conferences, especially those that feature creators.
Interspersed between talks was a great feature in which attendees were matched with one another for a series of quick 5 minute introductions. Users were matched via shared interests specified during registration.
This gave the conference the feel of a real conference, including all of the mingling and networking. But in this case, the heavy lifting of networking was already done for you. This was one of the highlights of the conference according to many attendees as they were able to virtually leave their quarantine bubble momentarily and mingle with the outside world.
Later in the conference, attendees were sorted into various rooms based on interests and presented with a group chat feature. Topics for these rooms were many and varied: art, development, gaming amongst others.
While the one-on-one talks were great for networking, the group chat was a good contrast in that it kept attendees focused on a topic.
Lighting Talks Overview
After the relatively longer talks came a series of short, lightning talks of 5m or less.
What’s needed for web monetization to win?
Jeremiah Lee of InVision gave a talk on what he believes to be necessary steps for "web monetization to win". First, he believes more providers are necessary. As of now, we have Coil and little else. Coil is US-centric and currently only accepts US dollars. Having more providers expand into the EU would be a big win. For his second step, Lee believes web monetization needs better branding. Telling users they need a "web monetization subscription" or the like is confusing and unappealing. Instead, Lee proposes using branding such as "The Web Multipass", a much catchier term, with a description like "A pass that grants you access to fine content all over the web, from Coil and other fine retailers." Third, Lee believes we need an outreach effort to get content creators with "high brand affinity" to adopt web monetization. Having organizations like NPR, PBS, and Wikipedia adopt web monetization would be a great boost for the community. These orgs already have huge number of readers who are hungry for content and want to support them, exactly what web monetization community needs
Future of Web Monetization in Africa
Another lightning talk came from Sultan Akintunde, an ambassador for Grant for the Web who is focused on getting people in Africa to adopt web monetization.
Akintunde began by providing an overview of web monetization with the overall message "you are not alone here". Plenty of organizations, some rather large, have been adopting the technology as of late. And it will only get better from here. He then simulated both a user and creator's journey of web monetization, specifically from those residing in Africa, and as such, focused on Uphold. Uphold, he argues, is currently the best bet for Africans due to its ability to convert, in their words, from "anything-to-anything". Finally, he moved into future possibilities for the technology.
Akintunde would like to see more local payment pointer providers. Second, he'd like to see revenue received directly in local currencies rather than having to convert from dollars. Third, he imagined the ability to deposit revenue directly into a local bank.
Grant for the Web: A $100 Million Investment to Reshape the Economics of the Web
Discussing Grant For the Web's Chris Lawerence and Erika Drushka's lightning talk is a great way to close this recap. Grant for the Web created a $100 million (!!!) fund to boost innovation in web monetization. According to Drushka, their focus is on the "development and adoption of the open source web monetization standard and the Interledger protocol." This initiative is currently being led by Coil, Mozilla, and Creative Commons. Grant for the Web aims to improve business models on the web, which all attendees of this conference can agree, have been less than ideal for some time. Lawrence outlined issues such as invasive ads, surveillance capitalism, and subscription fatigue which has negatively affected the web. They see the web monetization API and Interledger as the fix for these broken models.
Grant for the Web began quite recently, in 2019, and spent its first year getting "programs and advisors in place and designing opportunities which would be open and inclusive on a global scale". After this they ran a call for proposals, targeting creators and technologists.
A year later, they have over 100 grantees and have dished out over $7.5 million. Their grantees are working on adapting standards into platforms, researching white papers, film makers working on web monetizing videos and beyond.
Grant for the Web also supports efforts in web monetization for music (https://freemusicarchive.org/about) and gaming (https://defold.com). In 2021, the organization plans on "building a more public and transparent commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion". They also plan on "seeding community participation" in an attempt to seed ecosystems and connect its various parts, an important next step if this technology is to take off. Finally, they are planning a peer network in order to allow those in the community to "learn and work alongside others” in building new business models for the web.
The conference ran from 9am to 3pm on a hectic Thursday following an election, but the hosts managed to keep the mood light, the audience engaged, and the outlook optimistic. The talks were inspiring and the fast, new way of running a conference, as well as excellent organization by Case and Hook, kept people engaged and interested.
There were plenty of other talks worth recapping, all of which can be seen on Amber Case's YouTube playlist for the conference. Looking forward to next year's conference!