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MicroMemberships - Subscriptions for values based content and services — Interim Grant Report

Hey Community! We at Waag, Amsterdam, are excited to share our progress on the MicroMemberships project. MicroMemberships (possibly facilitated by the web monetization standard) focuses on the potential of small recurring payments as an open and fair business model for groups of artistic content creators. The core question is how – and in what shape – MicroMemberships contribute to an open, fair and inclusive internet and how these can be used by content collectives and their audience.

Project Update

Overall, the project is going quite well. It evolves at a slightly slower pace than expected, because it took us some time to really get a grip on the complexity of the concept of MicroMemberships. We have decided to work on the project in a dual process. We are on the one hand comparing MicroMemberships to existing businessmodels and technical solutions and on the other hand iterating our concept with different users/artistic makers (experiencing problems with currently existing web monetization options).

In the past months we have focused on pealing of the layers of MicroMemberships as a concept, and we have designed a mock-up interface of MicroMemberships (see below). The mock-up allows us to discuss the social and financial aspects and technical stack of MicroMemberships with artistic makers. Simultaneously, we are working on a blog series that reflects these discussions and preparing for a public event to discuss the findings and questions that arise during our exploration. Over all, the world of web monetization keeps us busy, interested and motivated.

The exploration builds upon MicroDonor, in which we focused on the potential of microdonations for (open-source) makers and organisations that try to operate according to public values. One of our findings in the MicroDonor project was that microdonations are merely complementary to other revenue models, as they do not generate structural support. MicroMemberships might tackle this problem because they provide a more stable income flow.

Our previous research also suggested that so-called ‘content collectives’ could counteract the perverse incentives of the commercial internet. In collectives, makers of low volume but high-quality work (or content) could bundle forces. It would not only provide a way to create new values-based networks, but also diminish the precarious position of individual creators on the labor market.

Progress on objectives

Our main objective is providing a substantiated answer to the question whether and how MicroMembership models contribute to a more fair, open and inclusive internet and provide a business model for content collectives and their audience. We wished to focus on three topics in our research – governance of the Membership and transaction system, governance of the content collectives, and implications for audiences in terms of content availability and costs.

We are still investigating the meaning of openness, fairness and inclusivity in the context of MicroMemberships. But over the course of the research trajectory, the focus and methods have slightly evolved.

We are still interested in governance of a MicroMembership system and in the role of content collectives in relation to this monetization model, but we have redirected our focus on the implications for audiences towards understanding what MicroMemberships imply in terms of the relation between maker, audience and the membership tech stack.

Similar to MicroDonor, we have framed the concept of MicroMembership within our Public Stack model*. We are working on understanding a web monetization membership model based on micropayments, looking at different layers of it’s ‘stack’: the relation that is facilitated between maker and audience, the underlying business model and the tech stack that is used. These layers provide a frame to assess better what openness, fairness and inclusivity mean in the context of MicroMemberships.

*The Public Stack, developed as part of the Roadmap Digital Future, is a model that helps to uncover the socio-technical layers of any technology. With the Public Stack we advocate for technology that is based on shared public values (as opposed to technology that is developed out of commercial interest only or based on surveillance principles).

Key activities

As said, we work on answering our questions by several activities. Substantiating our assessment of MicroMemberships and preconditions for it to be open, fair and inclusive, we have conducted a couple of light case studies. The cases are businesses and business models that contain elements - either relational, economic or technical – existing in the MicroMembership model. Think of Patreon, Coil, Adyen and Open collective. Desk research and interviews provide the back bone of the case studies. We’ll discuss what we’ve learned from them in upcoming blogs.

In order to collectively research the concept of MicroMemberships for it to contribute to better web monetization, we have designed a mock-up interface of a MicroMembership ‘wallet’. The wallet illustrates what aspects are up for discussion. In the first view (below, left) we see a potential wallet of a person contributing to its favorite maker collectives. A point of discussion here is: who decides the monthly amount? Does the content collective require to be of a certain size? And should it last for at least a certain amount of time, say, one year?

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The view in the middle illustrates the question of reciprocity and value for money. Does the member get something in return for its payments? Or can the payment be viewed as donation and sign of affiliation to a maker you respect? Transparency about the spending of the money is often expected in return for (recurring) donations, but question remains how much transparency is needed. It is interesting to look at the transparency that Open Collective is facilitating with its service. Related to the question of reciprocity: can others view what collectives you as a member support? That could provide some status for the member, but perhaps that would drag MicroMemberships again into a digital space that emphasizes individualization, vanity and competition for attention.

The view on the right, middle field, poses a question about the tech stack: what technology is used for the money transfer? Is it an open protocol or are we locked into a closed ecosystem of one platform offering the service? This is a question that we can ask for all elements of the tech stack; think of the paywall, a CRM, the transaction processing, the communication possibilities for engaging audiences as community, etc. And do we – as some want us to believe – depend on cryptocurrency for the openness or decentralization of transactions? This will be discussed in the second blog we’re preparing.

In interviews with artists, we learned from their experiences with web monetization options and membership models that are currently out there (think of Twitch, Tiktok, Youtube, Patreon and Substack). We have used the mock-up in these interviews to discuss conditions for MicroMemberships to be fair, open and inclusive. Surely, their perspectives have sharpened our exploration and brought in new perspectives on the problem at hand. Artist and system designer Yin Aiwen – who wrote a wonderful essay series on platform design and its dynamics – brought in the question of the relation between the artist and the community that enjoys the art. We spoke about how solidarity and cooperation could be central to the relation between artist and audience and discussed, which aims to realize this. What type of relation between artist and audience do MicroMemberships facilitate? And what is then the relation between one artist and the other? Many platforms currently encourage competition between artists. Aiwen’s immediate response to our mock-up: can the collectives in the left view also support each other? Artist Derk Over shared with us numerous experiences with current platforms that artists can use them to present their work and generate income. Besides competition, Derk Over brought in the question how artists can preserve independence and autonomy while using these platforms. Could MicroMemberships overcome this effect or would it push content makers still to view their content as commercial product for an audience?

We will further explore these questions and conditions in an upcoming public event.

Communications and marketing

The blog series are still under preparation, as we needed some time to really understand the question at hand. On our website, we have shared the main aims and outline of the project.

What’s next?

In order to receive input from a broader audience on the concept of MicroMemberships, we are planning a public event in summer. In order to discuss the conditions for open, fair and inclusive MicroMemberships, we will be using gaming as method to question the existing rules and define new ones. We hope to report about this soon!

The upcoming blog series will reflect our findings so far. They will focus on aspects of MicroMemberships that we deem crucial choices (or dilemma’s) for its openness and fairness. Think of the dependency on cryptocurrency technology, the role of collectives versus individual makers, and the expression of reciprocity in the relationship.

What community support would benefit your project?

We would really enjoy to get in touch with others that are especially interested in open and fair web monetization for creatives or others that have knowledge about membership models! Feel free to contact us to arrange something, we would be interested to see how our projects overlap and where we can learn from each other.

Relevant links/resources

Project aims:

Previous work we are building on:

Inspiration mentioned in the report:

Top comments (4)

chrislarry profile image
Chris Lawrence

@tessel Great work Waag team (as always!) Please reach out to us if we can help connect you to subjects or similar projects. Also wondering if you have followed our work with Rafiki and open payments with Interledger or with tipping. I wonder how small reoccurring payments or tip as you go would change your findings when the WM isn't just streaming?

julia profile image

Thanks! We reached out to your colleague and now know a bit more about Rafiki. Very interesting indeed!

gfam profile image

We're definitely happy to talk to you if that's helpful. is all about monetization for creatives.