Web Monetization: A Radically Optimistic Economic Future

I attended two sessions at OE Global 2021 that were about “Web Monetization”. OK, to be truthful, I never would have chose these sessions to attend if I wasn’t “assigned” them by the conference organizers as part of my responsibility to report about sustainability in OER. Now I am really glad that I have learned about this and hope to explore more.

The asynchronous sessions were: Sustainable Funding Solutions in Open Education with the Web Monetization Standard, Presenters: Erica Hargreave, Lori Yearwood and Kevin Ribble; and,

Sustainable Funding Models for Creatives and Educators : an Open Course, Presenters: Erica Hargreave and Lori Yearwood

The economic sustainability of OER is perhaps one of the most critical challenges faced by open educators. Many academics (faculty, librarians, Instructional designers, etc.) were originally inspired to be part of an open education movement precisely because it is viewed as a way to value learning and contribution to the public good over the monetary value of resources or curriculum or educational products of any kind. We face the paradox of wanting to provide quality educational resources that are “free” (to students and other users) but we know are not free to create. The OER movement shines a bright light on the corporate gouging of students via the inflation of textbook prices far beyond their cost of production, and the corporate swindling of textbook authors/creators who are not fairly compensated for their efforts. Eliminating corporate publisher “middlemen”, to some extent, has been an important way to shift the economic balance back in the favor of students. But we still face many sustainability challenges to provide sufficient quantities of OER’s and in the storage, curation and distribution of OER. As open educators, we face a difficult burden as the democratization of education and the fair access and distribution of OER are inextricably connected to capitalistic economic models in general. Many of us (this author included), shy away from conversations about money and economic models for OER and rightfully fear the open-washing and predatory actions of corporations who have not backed down easily from the loss of high textbook profits. Because of this, the idea of “monetizing” OER made me suspicious. But the more I learned, the more intrigued and excited I have become by the possibilities.

Presentation Summary:

Presenter Erika Hargreave was quick to point out that the “web monetization” they are promoting is not your typical idea of web monetization (using paywalls and ads). They emphasized that their overarching goal is to make the web a more equitable place for creators. Some interesting conversation in the OEG connect forum addressing the possibility of using different terminology was raised along with speculation as to whether the word “monetization” could have been partly responsible for the low forum participation.

The common model: In most current models of web monetization, creators of web content usually get a very small amount of compensation. For paywalled sites, money is usually channeled through a central company that collects payments from users and then distributes some small portion to content creators. Alternatively, users are bombarded with ads.

A new model: There are three essential ingredients to the new web monetization model presented here that I think makes it particularly ingenious. 1) Creators can allow users the option of whether or not to pay for their use of the web content. So the material can be openly licensed and provided for free to any user, but users might opt in to pay if they want. 2) Money flows directly to the website, not to some third party or platform, so the website creator is being paid directly from the users clicking on and using or reading the content- bits at a time. So creators earn micropayments from the time that users spend on their space. 3) Creators can earn money without having to spend anything upfront or pay anyone else first; they just need to spend a little time figuring out how to use the correct plug-in to monetize their site and get paid.

As the authors state “the goal behind this movement is to create a more equitable share of money earned from time spent on content in the digital sphere to the content creator, rather than to the browser or platform.” By using a new browser API standard, this allows for the “generation of a payment stream from the user directly to the website being viewed.”

How this works is that users pay for a monthly subscription and their money flows from the subscription to the monetized websites that they are spending time on. Coil is the name of the company discussed in the presentation (other companies that do this may also be in the works). You pay your monthly subscription to Coil ($5 USD/month), and then Coil directly streams payments to the digital wallets of website creators (of the sites that you are clicking on). The creators themselves are not required to buy a Coil subscription. So you can earn money without having to pay anything if you can’t afford it. It’s a beautiful model that seems to be mostly supporting new and beginning artists, musicians, film producers, alternative health care providers and a few other types of web content creators. However there are examples of open scientists and researchers also benefiting from this economic structure.

If more and more people choose to have a subscription in order to support the communities who are creating material that they find valuable, this model can move projects towards sustainability. It also easily allows for those with greater resources to support the work for those who cannot afford it. This decentralized approach to income flow – directly from users to creators – is what I believe gives it potential for the expansion of not just digitally-based open educational resources, but open pedagogies. Imagine that students might actually earn money by creating OER while learning.

There are definitely growing pains with this new model: the fear and skepticism mentioned earlier with monetization, but also fear related to cryptocurrency and micropayments. There is also a need for more providers (it can’t just be Coil).

Grant for the Web, a collaboration of Coil, Mozilla and Creative Commons, is working to help fund the growth of the web monetization community. From their site: “We envision a world where it’s possible for creators and publishers to get paid for their work without relying on invasive ads, paywalls, and the abuse of personal data.”

Welcome to Snake Nation, a mission-driven, next gen mobile media network, powered by creative rebels globally…We are empowering young Multicultural Millennial (M2) creators and coders to enter the $2.2 Trillion global Creative Economy on their own terms and build sustainable careers…The Creative Economy is essential to eradicating youth unemployment and poverty, by providing a social, economical and environmental impact on those in the communities we are called to serve.

https://snakenation.co/

Learning about Grant for the Web led me to a community forum about Snake Nation – a super exciting “Gateway to the Global Creative Economy” a company created by and primarily for communities of color across the globe. Snake Nation CTO, Tawanda Brandon from Capetown, South Africa said: “We want to be a company that actually serves the people”. Imagine a new global economic future where big banks and huge corporations are eliminated, and decentralization allows for money to only flow directly in small quantities between providers and users – now THAT is the future that I hope I will get to see one day.

I am curious as to what others think. Please add comments here or in the OEG Connect Forum.

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