The way we pay for content online is broken. Advertisements are how most content creators—whether they be bloggers, journalists, YouTubers, podcasters, or artists—make money. The result is two-fold. On the one hand, we get clickbait websites that prioritize pageviews over substantive content. At the other extreme, independent artists and bloggers have a hard time make a living on the craft with even tens of thousands of viewers per month.
Chris Ellis wants to fix that. "I am trying to build a culture of reward so that artists, writers, and journalists can earn a living with their work online," he says.
Ellis is creating ProTip to leverage the power of Bitcoin to change how we pay for content online. Bitcoin advocates often call it the first digitally native currency, likening it to the technological leap from snail mail to email. But Bitcoin remains intimidating for non-techies to use. ProTip is a simple web browser extension that pays the creators you value the most using Bitcoin. Think of it is your own personal automated patronage system.
To use ProTip you just install the extension into Chrome (Firefox and Safari support is forthcoming) and load it up with bitcoins and set a weekly spending budget. Then just browse as you normally do. As you surf the web, ProTip scans for Bitcoin addresses on the pages you visit. In then logs how much time you spend on each site with a Bitcoin address. At the end of the week, it divvies up your weekly bitcoin allowance to those sites based on how much time you spent on each.
In the way, ProTip is moving us bringing us closer to something of a mythical quest for digital publishers: a financial incentive for substantive engagement as opposed to clicks. An Internet in which 10,000 readers on your site can be as valuable as a half a million sticking around for three minutes. On such an Internet, it would be possible to make as much money off of long-form writing that readers spend significant time on as with top ten lists.
"There are 3 billion people on the Internet and somewhere there is a community who will value what you have to give," says Ellis. "It’s a question of building tools that help facilitate connections and support."
ProTip also comes with some advanced features like the ability to blacklist certain sites so that they won't get a portion of your budget. (That way you can spend 15 minutes filling out a "which character from Buffy are you" quiz without it getting a chunk of your digital change.) You can also choose to set an automatic recurring payment to sites you want to support regardless of how much time you spend on them. Because ProTip is an open source community project, it does not take a cut of the bitcoins that are transmitted on the platform. It truly is peer-to-peer, with no middle-man.
There have been many other projects over the years that attempt to rework how we pay for content online. Flattr was created by former operators of notorious torrent site PirateBay and launched to much praise from creatives. It uses a similar fixed budget wallet amount that was subdivided based on how many times you press a Flattr button per month. The main limitation is that it required both content creators and consumers to create Flattr accounts and for creators to install Flattr code on their websites. In its five years, Flattr has never hit a critical mass of adopters. In contrast, Pro Tip can tap into the existing base of Bitcoin enthusiasts.
Patreon is another platform that has been gaining steam lately. Individual "patrons" can donate however much they want to their favorite creators on a monthly basis. Creators love it and there are accounts of many individuals able to now make a living off their craft, whether it be blogging or webcomics or podcasting. Patreon works best for people who already have dedicated, loyal followings. But ProTip can capture revenue for individuals who craft a handful pieces of compelling content just as well as the creator who regularly produces moderately well-performing work.
ProTip recently completed an Indiegogo campaign that raised nearly $10,000 to continue development of the project. If you want to support ProTip's continued development, you can still donate with Bitcoin.