Our three stories explored several approaches to bundling, each led by a different actor, and resulting in differing power dynamics.
In the first story, we saw creators collaborate to bundle content to gain leverage, share costs, and release content more often to like-minded audiences. These collaborations came in all shapes and sizes, yet remained creator-driven, aided by an ecosystem of services that creators could mix and match to suit their needs. While to a certain degree centralized, these were primarily tools rather than platforms, so enabled creators to retain a degree of agency.
In the second story, we saw users bundling sites they regularly paid for to improve discovery and get more value out of their subscriptions. These bundles were simple conveniences, but as they leveraged an open format, they could be shared, imported and exported as users change providers. The format itself was also able to evolve in response to ecosystem growth and the changing needs that often accompany scale.
The second story also included provider-led bundling. Providers created these bundles to improve the value proposition of their subscriptions, primarily targeting mainstream users who would welcome the convenience of a centralized payment point and the degree of choice that centralization often provides. And while this centralization created challenges including inequality of access across markets, it also created opportunities to insert regulatory tripwires, enforce privacy practices, and create minimum access requirements like the Essential Web.
In the ‘real world’, we are beginning to see growth in platform-led bundling initiatives, most of them unrelated to the Web Monetization API, and exhibiting varying degrees of openness. Notable examples include:
- Scroll enables ad-free access to popular news and entertainment sites from around the world through a single, $5 USD monthly subscription.
- Newsletter platform SubStack recently created a Reader View that automatically bundles all of your SubStack newsletters into a single, distraction-free view. The aim of the reader is to enable users to more easily keep track of new issues, and (presumably in the future) to discover new ones.
- Ampled is a (recently web monetized) collectively owned and community supported “Patreon-like” platform for musicians. While led by a core team, it includes fully transparent governance practices such as community voting on platform rules, and the ability for co-op members to participate in site maintenance and development.
- Exploratory projects such as Forbes’ paid newsletter initiative will enable journalists to launch their own paid newsletters, and split the revenue with Forbes. Writers will benefit from the marketing, editorial and salary benefits of being a part of Forbes' newsroom while retaining full editorial independence.
- Subscription platform Medium has recently added all books from the Pragmatic Programmers series to it's $5 monthly online membership.
- Honourable mention goes to non-digital Stack, a subscription program that sends you a new, independent and small creator-owned magazine every month.
While still useful for creators, platform-led bundling is in my opinion the least interesting of the models we’ve discussed. It often encourages the growth of an ecosystem that—while still ostensibly powered by open standards—encourages user or creator lock-in, and ends up primarily benefiting it's largest or most popular creators.
These concerns are less of a risk with user- and creator-led bundling as they not only promote user and long-tail creator agency but also encourage the growth of related services that share these values. Encouraging this sort of bundling would therefore pay dividends independent of the monetization method, as a means of growing and sustaining the open web. Here are a few ways that we might enable it.
- Build tools that simplify assembling and hosting content for ad-hoc groups, including those that might regularly increase or decrease in size, or only exist for a set period of time (think virtual pop-up shop, gallery, or “creator in residence” schemes)
- Provide services optimized to host more formalized collectives or cooperatives, including features such as co-ownership-friendly permission structures, built-in tools to share administrative tasks and manage community governance, and the ability to split costs across managing participants. A great existing example is OpenCollective, a platform that enables communities to transparently raise funds, manage their finances, and even includes the ability to designate a fiscal host—a legal entity that collects money on their behalf to reduce management overhead.
- Build more open source and/or decentralized social media alternatives, that communities can adopt, and where needed, independently host and customize. An example of these is Forem, an open-source platform currently hosting the Dev.to software developers portal, but aiming to grow into a more turn-key offering that any community can adopt and potentially federate with like-minded peers.
- Build lightweight discovery portals (a sort of thin-marketplace) that enable like-minded creatives to host ‘just enough content’ to entice visitors over to complementary experiences dotted around the web, on social media, on an online store, or even offline.
- Develop community management utilities such as Policy Kit, which empowers online communities to automate common tasks such as hosting rotating elections for moderators, or spinning up a randomized jury to resolve moderation disputes.
- Build tools such as Stir, that help sole or collaborative creators manage the financial and business aspects of working together.
- Many of these collaborations would also need services such as editorial, legal, and accounting support; cloud-based software to stream events; or productivity and design tools to collaborate on content design or merchandise creation. And while tools such as these already exist, no one has yet considered how they might be profitably packaged, and maybe even purchased in micro-increments to suit collectives of small creators, as opposed to the more typical (of late) enterprise-driven offerings.
- A final step might be to leverage on-demand offline services such as Airbnb to help creators move beyond digital, and form ephemeral content houses.
This scenario is in some ways trickier, as we’ve long stopped thinking of the open web in this way. Users do however regularly create, edit, and enjoy the value of bundling by creating and sharing lists on platforms such as Twitter, Spotify, and Patreon. And despite its slow death in recent years, we do still have RSS—a standard designed to syndicate content and create curated lists for regular consumption (as shown in SubStack’s recently launched reader). There are of course many sites that don’t support RSS, and it’s not clear what an RSS enabled HTML game or Figma board might look like—but wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?
A tool that we could leverage to encourage bundling is the browser. Most browsers already include some form of “home” tab, that enable users to craft a part-automated and part-customized entry point to their favourite sites. Why not go a step further, and let users fill the screen with feeds from sites they care about and are keen to support? (Yes, I know, this isn’t a new idea, but perhaps it’s finally time to revisit it?) With built-in Web Monetization support, a contemporary RSS reader might just start to feel like a fully customizable subscription to all the things you love on the web.
As hinted in story three, this reader need not fit our legacy mental models of RSS. The experience could be beautifully optimized for long-form reading, making it ideal not just for articles, but books (including those used in educational settings). The built-in range of monetization options would enable authors to choose how best to monetize their creation (one-off payment or streaming) while enabling users to disburse ad-hoc payment to reward a particularly interesting page, paragraph, or phrase. An existing app that mixes aspects of this concept with the “social mode” described in story three is Glose (recently acquired by Medium) which enables users to socially discover, organize, read, and engage with books.
A superpower of user-led bundling would be the ability to share read lists (like playlists, but for the web), which could themselves be bundled and aggregated by third parties to help users discover new content on any topic, from sourdough bread to Brexit, or the history of the Thai monarchy.
Based on open standards, these ‘bundles of bundles’ would form an interoperable discovery layer atop of the Web Monetization subscription concept, helping small creators find new audiences, and (perhaps finally) providing a viable alternative to algorithmically fuelled social discovery.