I'll be sharing these experiences during April's Grant for the Web Community Call. Please come along and let me know what you think.
Register here for the Grant for the Web Project Skill Share Community Event 10am EST / 4pm CEST on Monday 25 April
Streaming micropayments - web monetization - is new. And the online new is no longer absorbed into society with the unquestioning rapture of the 1990s. Neither should it.
So, while the technical challenges are great, the social ones - of building trust, resilience, and engagement - are even greater.
Yet the promise of disintermediated micropayments is greater still. It is up to us, the community of web monetization makers, to earn that trust.
What follows may seem unduly negative, but it helps to take stock. To have a realistic appraisal of what challenges us as we take our first tentative steps in this new medium. And, mostly, for me to recognise what I got right, wrong, and still have to reckon with.
I used to run a small development project in the shanty towns around the formal neighborhoods of Cape Town. An ubiquitous feature of every street are tiny spaza kiosks selling small packets of sugar, soap, coffee or whatever, repackaged from much larger boxes. What is in those packets isn't some no-name brand, cheapest of the cheap. Nope. Brands. Omo. Lux. Five Roses. Hulett. All the comforting South African logos.
For a simple reason.
When you are poor you have no room for risk. Too much goes wrong on a daily basis for which you have no protection. You cannot afford to buy the wrong brand of soap.
Creators on the internet may not be quite as poor, but they're on the cusp. Most are not superstars, but have multiple sources of income, cross-subsidising their creative pursuits with whatever ad hoc work they can take. Setting up Qwyre.com and telling authors, "Hey, come publish here, you'll get paid in real-time and direct to your payment pointer." isn't a quick win.
Sampling the writing community yielded responses like, "Cryptocurrency? Hell no!"
It doesn't matter that publishing on Qwyre is simpler than publishing on Amazon, there is no halo effect from established brands. Payments aren't via Visa or Mastercard. Creators can't use their own credit cards, Stripe or PayPal accounts.
Instead, creators have to sign up for a whole new "wallet" and generate a "pointer" on a web service replete with promotion of speculative cryptocurrency investment.
It certainly helps that Uphold and Gatehub are working on complying with regulatory authorities in the US and EU, but that takes time. It's also happening now, so when people do go to sign up, they're sometimes told that new accounts aren't available in their region while this regulatory process unfolds.
Lessons: I made the technical process of uploading creative work and publishing as easy as possible, but payment pointers and getting paid are - like most publishing platforms - not part of the core workflow. It's not a technical challenge, but a critical part of their user experience.
I will be redeveloping the publishing experience to integrate payment information and ensure writers know I take their getting paid as equal to them publishing and being read.
The tech industry has awoken to new EU legislation which mandates prying open the locked-down world of text apps, like WhatsApp. Such lockin should never have been tolerated in the first place, and a world in which the underlying technology had been designed around open interoperability protocols wouldn't have supported tech monopolies in quite the same way, or caused such pandemonium when eventually dismantled. After all, we take it for granted you can phone anyone on any network.
But just because we came up with a new way to support micropayments doesn't mean we haven't stored up a future where a small number of companies monopolise monetization.
As Eric Parker, South African franchise guru and co-founder of Nandos, used to say, "Run your small company as if you were a big company."
He didn't mean "exploit your workers, offshore your profits, and lobby politicians". What he was talking about was technical and management debt. That the mistakes you make in the early days become part of the foundation of your company and impossible to remove later on. They will hurt you forever, and most are avoidable. If you hire only white males from the same schools at the beginning, and twenty years later you wonder how you have fomented a bro-led toxic culture hostile to women and diversity, you're being deliberately ignorant of the world around you.
To summarise the summary: Start as you mean to go on.
In our case that means make monopolies impossible from the beginning. Don't give yourself the option. Make it easy for your users to leave. Let them take their stuff and go whenever they want.
I can't do much about how Coil, Uphold or Gatehub may choose to run their businesses, for good or ill. But I can control my own.
That means make leaving easy. Creators must be able to take their work - their epubs - and publish them elsewhere. There must never be the option for me to centralise payments. Creators must always be paid direct. But these are relatively easy. There's harder stuff on interoperability I'm not sure how to solve:
- If you have a successful link to your work, how do you take that with you? Probably impossible, unless I figure out how authors can use their own domain names?
- What happens if someone already has their own website but wants to integrate with mine for search and reading interface, is that possible?
- What about other platforms doing the same thing? Should we have shared APIs and expose each other's work? Should a reader on Qwyre be able to read a work on my platform on a different app?
If you think about Amazon, or Spotify, your library isn't available on other platforms. Even when you outright buy the work, you're locked in to reading or listening on their app. I have multiple copies of some things simply because of this lack of interoperability. And it's not right.
Lessons: It's easy to get lost in the technical challenge of making interoperability work, but that's to lose sight of needing to have enough readers and creators to make this necessary in the first place. Start as you mean to go on doesn't mean do it now.
So ... this is a commitment to making interoperability core to Qwyre - to using open standards (like epub and not inventing some alternative locked-down mobi standard instead) - but not to be so obsessed with this that it overwhelms a primary need to build a community of happy readers and creators in the first place.
Crucially, it is also to be a vocal champion against monopolies, and for open interoperability. To be mindful of what I make, and what I do, to ensure I am in accord with these standards.
One challenge of engaging with tech-driven innovation is watching the wave lift boats all around you, but not yours. Too early, too late, not in the right place ... you end up obsessively running weird - and unnecessary - A/B testing. What about this colour? If the button was 2mm higher on the page? How about a different font?
Before we had the monopoly stacks, I remember grazing widely on search engines and news portals. We certainly have a winner-takes-all problem, but see my previous point.
It will take time to build confidence. Time for the various tech components to mature. Time to become part of the world.
So, what should you be doing in the absence of users. What should I be doing in the absence of readers and creators?
I'm running a short-story competition although the pushback from communities where I've sought to promote it has been weird. It's not ok to promote it because of the payments process. Promoting writers to publish because they will get paid by readers while they read is, somehow, not acceptable, but charging readers for a published work and not paying the writer a live share of that is traditional and acceptable.
Until monetization becomes as mainstream as credit cards, it's going to be difficult for it to be an innocuous and inoffensive way of simply getting paid.
So, however long it takes to attract other writers and readers is going to take patience. Whether I like it or not doesn't enter into it.
But ... I am a writer. I can write for my own platform, and that will help me improve the app in measurable ways that make writing and publishing more pleasing for others.
You can see my doing that now. Here's a short story called "If only they couldn't talk". Go ahead. It's free. You don't even need to enable monetization to read it.
Similarly, I need to engage, as much as this navel-gazing introvert is capable of.
Lessons: It's easy to over-think slow-uptake as indicative of commercial failure, but in a new industry - where so many of the concepts and technology are still very immature - it may simply be that you're too early. Spending emotional and financial bandwidth leaping about trying different things may leave you burned-out and spent.
It is better to have a consistent plan, one that fits within the limits of your mental and financial health, and keep going. There are certainly examples of overnight wonders, but there are just as many of plodders who got there slow and steady.
I commit to writing more, promoting more (but not obsessing about likes or hits ... I'm not particularly good at social media), and using the awesome thing I made.
Being supported by Grant for the Web has been an amazing and creative experience. I've enjoyed the community, feedback, and support from the team. I know this is only the beginning, and I hope the alumni of these first few years get to gather in a few years time and look back in wonder and gratitude at all we achieved.
Good luck, and go read something (on Qwyre.com).