Skip to content

Three futures: Exploring the future of web monetization

A paper by Stephanie Rieger

Welcome to the future. It’s 2030…

You’re surfing the web and come across an interesting website. Perhaps it contains a collection of gluten-free recipes or a unique multi-episode knitting course, or maybe it’s a community for people learning to speak Spanish. Now imagine being able to easily send its creator money as a token of your appreciation. Rather than subscribe to that site specifically, you use a service that automatically streams tiny payments as you browse. The donations you make are paid in real-time to that creator’s digital wallet, and they may choose to reward you with a thank you message or small piece of bonus content.

This is the vision proposed by the creators of Web Monetization, an API and proposed web standard that enables users to stream tiny payments (usually fractions of a cent) to websites as they browse the web. In exchange for this payment, websites can provide users with a “premium” experience such as free access to exclusive content or removing advertising. All of this is made possible by Interledger, an open protocol that applies many of the principles of network design, to payments.

Why this paper?

Talk, loudly and frequently and in detail, about the future you want. You can’t manifest what you don’t share. — Madeline Ashby

With more than half the planet now online, and so many of us relying on the web for our livelihoods, our education, and the very functioning of our democratic processes, it’s become critical to carefully consider the potential impact of every new technology we invent. This includes not only imagining all its positive effects, but how it might be misused or cause accidental harm through poor design, a misalignment of incentives, or the eventual impacts of scale.

This paper aims to kick-start this sort of discussion for Web Monetization by exploring its potential long-term impacts; positing both positive and negative ways the technology may change how we use the web, and providing recommendations to ensure they result in a more equitable, open, and diverse web.

The paper contains three sections.

  • Section one introduces the Interledger protocol and Web Monetization API, explaining the problems they aim to solve, how they work. This section doesn’t attempt to be exhaustive but provides sufficient context to enrich the scenarios in section two. If you already understand these technologies, feel free to skip to the next section.
  • Section two presents three futures, each depicting a world where Web Monetization has become mainstream yet resulted in different behaviours, patterns of equity, and degrees of openness and interoperability on the web.
  • Section three presents my thoughts and recommendations for the many stakeholders who will take this technology forward—including us, its users.

These stories aren’t blueprints or business plans. Nothing is yet cast in stone. We can build this. But we can also choose not to. My goal in writing this isn’t to predict the future but to spark discussion around each scenario’s benefits and pitfalls. Whom will they favour? Whom might they harm?

These questions are important, as they stimulate discussion, challenge assumptions, and motivate stakeholders to more clearly describe (and agree on) a future that is not only possible but preferable. Discussions such as these will be critical as the technology begins its journey towards becoming a web standard; a clearly defined process, as practised in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), that attempts to ensure that new technologies are created in the open and are subject to wide review (including ethical review) before they can be called a web standard.

To that end, success for me would be to see this paper widely read, debated, and disputed, as a small step towards ensuring these technologies go on to provide useful and meaningful change; empowering new creators and audiences to use the web, and ensuring it remains accessible to everyone—especially those who need it the most.

This whitepaper is web monetized. Read on to find out what it means, and how it works! 🙂