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MicroDonor: what happens in public and behind the scenes?

In the coming months, Waag will be working on the MicroDonor project. We are investigating whether a micro-donation system is a suitable revenue model for open-source developers, content creators, and cultural institutions who do not want to make money with the personal data of their users. In this blog, we report on the public program on March 18 (can be viewed here) and we update you on the latest technical developments in our quest for web monetization as a revenue model.

See for background to this project:
MicroDonor: first exploration of the technology
MicroDonor: research for an open-source profit model
MicroDonor project page

Public program
On Thursday May 18, Waag organized an evening program for experts and interested parties in the field of fair, open revenue models. MicroDonor: a revenue model according to public values ​​was the first kick-off of the project towards a wider audience, and thus the first opportunity to measure the value of a microdonation system outside our own Waag team. With more than 40 visitors and a lively discussion between experts from different backgrounds, we look back on an inspiring evening.

The evening kicked off with an introduction to the Public Stack model, within which the MicroDonor project positions itself. Micro-payments for digital content and services offer perspective as part of the "foundation" of a public technology stack. Colleague Taco presented our research trajectory so far (can also be read in the previous blog post). We then entered into a discussion with the invited experts on the basis of a number of statements, whereby the public was also encouraged to actively participate via the chat. The evening ended with a reflection by a researcher who has experience with revenue models for the creative and cultural sector at European level.

The panel was a valuable mix of expertise: such as a software developer who works with XRP; a publisher at Follow the Money (FTM); the person responsible for IRMA from SIDN; an advocate for creatives from the Kunstenbond; and a CRM manager at the VPRO. The panel members all had experience with the search for fair earnings models to a greater or lesser extent; Where, for example, FTM and VPRO in the past experimented with paid apps, Tikkies and a Blendle button, software developer Wietse actually set up a system of micro donations for Reddit and Twitter users with his XRP TipBot. In addition, Caspar offered a broader view of the creative sector from within the Kunstenbond. The cultural field is also increasingly facing digitization - only reinforced by the current pandemic.

A number of themes were clearly at the forefront of the discussion. First of all, the potential of a system of microdonations was emphasized. It could be a fairer, more transparent revenue model, in which the user, instead of (unknowingly) paying with his personal data, is in control of which platforms or content is supported. That way, content and platforms that are now often offered online for free could again be appreciated. In theory, the micro payment runs directly from the user to the provider (in line with Peer2Peer thinking). In addition, many organizations and content creators themselves, on the user side, also increasingly want to get rid of a system of advertisements - both for ethical and convenience reasons. It also offers more flexibility: at a time when users want to commit themselves less and less to one broadcaster, newspaper or other platform, microdonations offer a solution for making use of different media in an accessible way (for instance to read a couple of articles instead of a whole digital magazine).

On the other hand, challenges were also discussed. For example, the speakers agreed that a microdonation system must remain fair for large and small parties. Small parties like Follow the Money, who put a lot of time and work into quality articles that may not be read by a large audience, should not be penalized by low web monetization revenues when it is about gaining as many "views" as possible. How do we prevent micro donations from becoming a perverse incentive that leads to ‘clickbait’ and only reinforces the ‘attention economy’? In addition, it is important that the income really does end up with the maker or designer, instead of the distributing party that is often in between. Perhaps an intermediary is indispensable, who takes on an infrastructural role (of the distribution of money) and, for example, draws up leveling agreements, as they are now often made in the cultural sector. Ideally, donations run directly from the user to the maker, but an intermediary - such as Coil - is also necessary to protect the privacy of individual internet users.

The added value of micro donations on existing systems became clear. There is an increasing demand at both user and provider level for fair, transparent and low-threshold revenue models for online content and services, and web monetization can partly meet this demand. Whether it is realistic that it will completely replace other existing systems remains to be seen, but it is clear that micro donations hold great promise as one of several types of income streams.

Technical developments
We have also been busy behind the scenes. After the first 'naive implementation', in which we transferred fake money via a test network to our own 'wallet' while using the video conference service Jitsi through (see also the first technology update here), we are now working towards a version 0.1 of the micro donor web extension. In our GitLab repository (viewable here for enthusiasts) we developed two components. One for the extension itself, and one for the "beneficiaries" registry. This second component is about the beneficiary organizations; on which websites will the counter run and which interested organizations will receive a microdonation? Until now, only Jitsi and Waag are in the register, but even within there are even more involved organizations. Ultimately, this database is automatically supplemented via the code we write; for now, during the co-design sessions (more on that later) we will consider how to set up this register. Do organizations apply, or do we set a set of conditions on the basis of which organizations are automatically "approved" for monetization? Which party manages such a register?

The first component that we are now developing is about the web extension itself. This will therefore be a Waag microdonation web extension, which operates alongside the Coil web extension and with which you as a user can set the conditions for monetization yourself. With v0.1 it now looks like this: The extension recognizes the platform you are using or the content you are viewing, and sends it to the server with the register of monetized organizations. In a next version we want to see if we can load this database locally in the web extension. The component with the register returns a list of the beneficiaries (currently two), from which the extension then randomly chooses 1 to monetize - with the fixed rate of 0.36 cents per hour that Coil uses. In the settings in the drop-down menu of the extension, you can also choose which beneficiary you support, and you can set a maximum amount per recipient.

The web extension of Waag then picks up the "receipts" (transferred amounts) from Coil and adds them up, so that you as a user can read how much you have donated in total. This is stored on the user's local database (computer), so that privacy is not compromised as is the case with storing data on a central server. The micropayments are made in XRP, a cryptocurrency set up from Ripple. Unlike Bitcoin, for example, this cryptocoin does not run through a ‘proof-of-work’ consensus mechanism (requiring enormous amounts of energy) but through ‘trust-based validation’. The payments are therefore faster and more energy efficient. The receiving party receives the microdonation in its virtual wallet in the form of XRP, after which it can then convert it to another currency as desired.

Next steps
So far the micro donor browser extension v0.1. In the coming weeks we will further develop the back-end, after which we will also look for the desired design at the front. In addition, we look broader, beyond the web extension (which is linked to Coil and therefore remains dependent on the conditions created by them): what more can be done with the Web Monetization API? What do we recommend for the ‘ideal’ monetization provider, besides Coil?

We will further elaborate on questions from both the public program and the technical quest in the co-design sessions on April 22, May 6 and May 20. During these sessions, we will work with a diverse group of open-source developers, creators from the cultural and creative industries, and advocates of open technology and fair earnings models to work on a number of questions. More information about the co-design sessions can be found here.