Crowdfunding Microtransactions, $ for your + ❤ ★ 👍


I believe the advertising industry is cancerous. But there are some wonderful people who make wonderful things who sell ads. On today's Internet, it's the first place many creators turn to get some compensation for their work without locking it away behind a paywall. I'm interested in alternatives.

Microtransactions have been hailed as the solution for about as long as the Web has been a thing, though they've never really taken off. But since Kickstarter started making headlines, something's shifted. Kickstarter and friends (e.g. indiegogo and Crowdtilt) do crowd funding for big-design-up-front campaigns, but there are now also platforms aimed at providing funding in a more ongoing, consistent-over-time fashion. Patreon was the first of these that stood out to me,1 followed soon after by Subbable. Gittip predates them both, but not by much.2

The one I find most interesting at the moment, though, is Flattr. With Flattr, you set your total monthly budget for tips, and then at the end of the month it gets divided up among all the people you've flattr'd that month. That means it's probably less consistent income for creators, but as a patron it totally removes the question of can I afford to send a tip for yet another awesome thing I just found? How much have I spent on that already? because your budget is already set.

The other clever thing Flattr does is it ties in to the existing feedback mechanisms of popular platforms, so when I a video on Vimeo or a repository on GitHub, it automatically includes it in the list of tips for that month.

And while Flattr's primary mode is this one where I give individual tips for individual pieces of content as I encounter them — making it easy for me to give you a tip now for this thing I'm currently excited about without committing to anything long-term — it also does have the option to subscribe to a creator, which will make sure they're always included in your tips for each month. Meaning you still have the option of supporting creators in a way that's more predictable to them, like Gittip or Subbable.

That was the informative, maybe even useful portion of this post. What follows is more rambling thoughts that have come up as related:

I've always assumed that the reason that microtransactions don't pan out is because the transaction cost for sending around dollars is too high. Gittip documents Paypal's transaction fees as $0.30 + 2.9%, and while there are a few other options, fees for small transactions don't get much lower than that. That's what makes a platform like Gittip or Flattr useful; by asking you to pay a lump up front, and being able aggregate payouts from many-to-many, they spread out the total transaction fees so small tips aren't entirely eaten up by that $0.30 minimum.

But now that ads are everywhere, and I assume that there are only a small handful of ad brokers that sell essentially all the ads I see on the web, there is already a mechanism in place for tracking the content I find valuable and getting money to the creators for it. If AdSense just had a button I could push to out-bid the advertiser for my eyeballs, and never show me another ad but keep paying the content providers anyway, I would hit that button in a heartbeat.

How much can my eyeballs really be worth? I think I can count the number of ads I click on per year on one hand and still have plenty of fingers left over. (The most notable exception being that when I am reading comics, I sometimes click on ads for other comics; these are probably Project Wonderful ads.) People are pretty cagey about how much they get paid for selling ads; I think that when you partner with a distributor like YouTube or Twitch to monetize your videos, your contract says you're not allowed to disclose that.

reddit gold3 is $4/month. OkCupid will turn off its ads for a one-time fee of $5 — although maybe they don't tell you that unless you use an ad-blocker? Twitch Turbo is $9/month. Hulu Plus takes your money and keeps showing you ads anyway, which is why I Netflix instead, even if that means it'll be a while before I get to watch Cosmos.

That's all the data points I have off the top of my head for current opt-out-of-ads programs. If you have a source to tell me how much my eyeball-time is selling for, I'd like to find out.

Oh, one last thing. A shout-out to Affero, whose mission it was to to bring a culture of patronage to the Internet in 2002. You were perhaps ahead of your time, dear hackers. (I speak of this service in the past tense as while it appears at first glance to be online, it shows no transactions in the past twelve months.)


  1. Disclaimer: I have a crush on the artists of Pomplamoose, who also happen to be founders of Patreon.
  2. Gittip's charts start 95 weeks ago — that's june 2012 — but their membership was pretty much flat until February 2013, just months before Patreon.
  3. Note that reddit gold doesn't turn off your ads by default, but it does give you the option to do so if you seek it out in the settings.
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