Reciprocity Services: A Better Online Tipping Model

If Creators could earn more money for what they give to the rest of us- their imagery, research, ideas, perspectives, and stories- I believe the quality of their creations would go up, and that would benefit everyone. If Creators experienced more reciprocity, it would be a big win/win for humanity.

I have an idea which I believe could help online Creators earn a lot of money in addition to the advertising model, and probably a lot more than the subscription model. As a side effect, it will also lead to a vastly better online experience for everyone. But, my main goal is to somehow help Creators to become better rewarded.

It’s such a simple and straightforward idea at its core, that I am fascinated that I have never heard of it before. If this idea does not work for some reason, I think there would have to be some kind of important lesson in *why* it doesn’t work.

The core, technical idea would work like this, in its basic, idealized form:
1. The user (whom I shall refer to as the “Patron”), if s/he so wishes, signs up with a single commercial service (let’s call it a “Reciprocity service”, RS for short). This RS handles 100% of their payments, in exchange for unlimited higher-quality online viewing of news sites, blogs, Google search results, online video, and perhaps many more online media services as well (music, movies, photography, etc.). I.e. the RS functions as a universal passkey to all of the online content which is covered by the Reciprocity service.
2. The Reciprocity service charges for content in a metered way- i.e. a default charge for each web page viewed, video watched, etc. The RS works out the rates for each page with the content provider. Maybe 1 cent per page, 3 cents, 5 cents, etc.
3. This metered charge can be seen at all times by the Patron (in a browser toolbar, popup window, popunder window, or meter in the OS toolbar), or by the Patron typing a keyboard shortcut. Also, the RS can be turned on or off as the user wishes.
4. While there is a default charge for each page, *the Patron can manually change this charge*, either by typing in a new figure, or by clicking on up and down arrows. So, the Patron can “tip” a whole lot for content s/he highly appreciates. Or, just so long as they are paying the RS a minimum amount overall, the Patron can even charge a website a small fee (up to a certain limit), if they feel they’ve been cheated of their precious time (by clicking a link because of a misleading headline, for example). They can also make changes from their online billing statementat any time. So, the Patron has final control what they are paying for what they’re enjoying.
5. The Patron is only charged once a month. They have an online statement they can review at any time (and adjust the charges, within limits- I would suggest that so long as the Patron is averaging at least 50% of the default charge per page, that the Patron be free to modify their charges), and then they pay for all of the content they’ve enjoyed over the course of the month.
6. The Reciprocity service then takes all that money, and directs it to the appropriate owners of the content, minus the commission the RS takes. Just like in Google’s Adsense model, the RS only pays the content Creators when they’ve cumulatively earned, say, $100 or more. This once a month funneling is what makes this model financially efficient.
7. The Reciprocity service will not only pay the owners of the web pages which have been viewed, but would also do “pass-through” payments to anyone who owns work which was incorporated in the web page. For example, if a blog post contains most of an article from the New York Times, photographs by Darren Campbell and Laxshmi Narayanan, and a Youtube video which is played, then some of the payment goes to the owner of the blog for their added commentary, hosting, and packaging skills, and the rest is divided up among the New York Times, the photographers, Youtube, and the owner of the video that was viewed.

OK, so let me first start by explaining the possible benefits to the Patron for using an RS, because if the benefits to Patrons are sufficiently compelling, then this will easily be a successful idea. I will also suggest other specific features which could be offered by the RS and by Creators, to make the deal sweeter for the Patron.

The benefits which can be sold to Patrons:
-The great simplification; this is more convenient for readers than managing multiple subscriptions. Instead, the Patron can consolidate all payments to one service.
-More convenient than “registering for free” with websites
-More convenient than manually making donations. The payments the Patrons will make (which are really just like voluntary donations) will increase enormously, just by making it as easy as it could possibly be for the Patrons to donate at will. For me, most webpages I like are worth somewhere between a penny and a quarter. But, the amount of time and effort it takes for me to find the Donate button (if there is one), and make a payment, is more valuable than what I would wish to donate. Also, I recall that Paypal et al. have fees which eat up small donations, so the Creator would see little or nothing of such a small donation made under the current Paypal model.
-A guaranteed good deal. The Patron only pays for content they have already enjoyed, rather than having to take the risk of paying for a subscription in advance, which s/he may later feel was a bad deal.
-The emotional satisfaction that comes from participating in mutual reciprocity. “You gave me something I value- now I shall return the favor”.
-Many other positive feelings- a clear conscience, pride, ownership, a sense of relationship, etc.
-I strongly suspect it will be worth it to Creators to offer ad-free browsing… which will now also be guilt-free for the Patron.
-Privacy protections. It will be worth it to websites to no longer install invasive tracking cookies in their Patrons’ browsers, and the RS can guarantee to their users that their privacy is 100% protected.
-Opening up more paywalled, high-quality content to the masses (such as science journal articles, or publications like the WSJ, Economist, NYTimes, etc.). There are lots of people who would like to read an elite piece of journalism now and then, but the paywalls are currently locking them away from this occasional pleasure.
-Power. I.e. the opportunity to directly influence the future work of the Creator. Creators, once given *direct feedback* on what their Patrons value, will be inclined to give their Patrons (and the world at large) more and better work of that nature. The Patron/Artist model of the Renaissance produced some amazing art, did it not?
-Supporting a cause they believe in. There are millions of people willing to make political donations, support the arts, donate to churches, fund Kickstartr projects, etc. Well, every real-world cause has an online cultural presence as well, so I am sure that millions of people would enjoy the opportunity to support the causes they value, in a targeted, easy, and spontaneous way.
-Protecting the Patron’s time. Right now, there are strong incentives for websites to waste their users’ time with linkbait headlines and other gimmicks, because every page view is another potential bit of ad money. But if Patrons are allowed to punish those websites for wasting their time, they will either stop doing it, or refuse to sign up with the RS (which Patrons will come to see as an indicator of a site not worth visiting).
-Safety and the comfort of knowing there is someone looking out for your interests. It will be in the best interests of the RS to actively protect their Patrons. They will want to help protect Patrons from harmful cookies, spammy content, fraudulent content, and website owners who have a history of acting abusively towards their users. That is a powerful thing to be able to offer, because the Internet is still the Wild Wild West for most of its users, and nobody is looking out for them.
-Some fun. Why not some visual fireworks and a nice alert sound for each tip given? Most of us seem to like that :). Or, various classes of recognition for support (Official recognition as a supporter, by the Creator, and that kind of thing).
-I’m quite confident that it will be worth it to offer a variety of “streamlined web browsing” options, similar to what Readability provides. Only, even better, since the RS would have incentive to offer greater personalization and sophistication in their service.
-I would recommend that the default charge not occur just for loading a page… I think it would be best if the RS tracks how long and actively the Patron actually engages with the web page, and adjusts the fee to that. I certainly load a lot of web pages I only briefly engage with, and then I close the webpage once I realize it’s not worth my time.
-More and better content of all types. As soon as it is financially viable for Creators to invest even more in what they wish to give to the world, I am sure they will do so. It’s in their DNA. All of us will be the beneficiaries of these fresh torrents of creativity. Every. Single. Person. Even those people who don’t choose to use the RS model, but instead prefer the advertising or subscriptions model, will be beneficiaries.
-Finally, a decent incentive model for original reporting and journalism, which benefits everyone. Pass-through payments for content which is then quoted on blogs will be a huge boon to journalism, which is so vital to a free, healthy, and virtuous nation.
-In discussing this idea with my tech-savvy brother, it seems that the best possible technical implementation may be to modify an open-source web browser so that the RS would work via the browser. This would also make it easier to offer a lot of other possible perks through the browser.
-The benefits of what would in practice put an end to the restrictiveness of copyright (without actually getting rid of the legal category of copyright, nor taking control away from copyright owners). Once Creators can get paid no matter where their work appears, it will be in their interests to loosen their restrictions on who else can display their work, so that it can be repackaged in myriad ways which give the Creators a larger audience and more revenue in exchange… and this would be a wonderful deal for Patrons, because right now the lowest-quality content is the most widely propagated, and the highest-quality content is the most restricted, and this has a terrible effect on the overall quality of the Internet.
-Spontaneously offered perks for Patrons. Once it is in the interests of a Creator to offer special perks to their Patrons in order to encourage their support, they will do so, and because they are such creative people, it’s gonna be good!
-I would suggest that just like many magazines and newspapers offer student discounts, and various other discounts, I would suggest that the RS offer discounts to kids, students, and readers with reduced incomes, which will also expand the market for Creators and the RS.
-Helping some people to reduce the amount of time they spend on the Internet. There are clearly a lot of people who wish to be spending less time online; but the idea of “free!” can be powerfully addictive, and it blinds people to the fact that they are giving away such valuable time for such a pittance. I believe that for some people who really do have a problem, switching to paying a small amount per page will help to wake them up to the real costs of what they’re doing, so that they can move towards a much more balanced life- one in which the Internet has a high-quality *supporting* role in their life.

I believe this is a lot of benefit for what I’m guessing would be an average charge of maybe 3 cents per webpage (or whatever the Patron agrees to in each case). I am confident that there are millions of people in the world who would want to use this service. Not everyone will sign up for it; some people have a remarkably strong attachment to the idea of “free”, even to the point of guaranteeing a low-quality life for themselves. But, many people would voluntarily use a Reciprocity service of some kind.

The Possible Market Size for a Reciprocity Service:

The market size for a Reciprocity service(s) would be somewhere between a few hundred million dollars, and a few hundred billion- almost all of it profit.

This is my reasoning for why I think the eventual market size will be closer to the high end of that range, than the low end.

-We already know there are millions of people willing and even eager to pay for subscriptions and donations, because they’re already doing so. An RS would obviously be attractive to them because it’s an improvement on what they’re already doing.
-We know there are lots of people who have declared that they never click on ads (and lots of people never even see ads because they use ad-blockers), but they would like to be supportive in some modest fashion. I’m one of these people; there is literally only one website I use enough in order to justify the mandatory subscription fee (and I imagine it is a similar situation for other people online- our user experiences have become too heavily diffused to justify most subscriptions). But, I would happily pay a modest amount each time I viewed all the other websites I view regularly. I have a conscience, after all, and so do most people.
-The tips for Creators will probably be a very skewed graph. Most content will be worth very little to the average Patron, but now and then there’s going to be something which will make someone tip $1, $10, or more. Some content online is just that good and meaningful to *a specific person with a specific need*. For example, imagine how much you would be willing to tip the person who has the webpage which tells you how to solve your urgent computer repair problem, business problem, relationship problem, etc.?
-There is a huge problem with trying to sell readers on the subscription model. It’s hard for us as readers to estimate the value of information and art when we think of experiencing it over the course of the year to come (and the very thing which makes it valuable to us- its newness- is what makes it’s value unforseeable!). But, when we are feeling informed, moved, and connected *in the present moment*, we value art and information a great deal (to the point where we would pay a large amount to avoid being separated from it). So, if we pay for that value each time it occurs, over the course of a month it really adds up. And then we look back, using our billing statements, and just like rationalizing what we paid for everything else in our life, we say “oh yeah, that meal was worth it, that movie rental was worth it, that article was worth it”, etc.
-I believe it will be extremely easy for all the Creators on the internet to create a “culture of tipping”. If most Creators online ask for reciprocity, and perhaps even demand that regular Patrons use a Reciprocity service when visiting their website, it shouldn’t take long before tipping is the social norm. After all, if we can create a social expectation (in America) that virtually every sit-down meal is going to involve a tip- which is usually more than a dollar, even for mediocre service- I think it should be easy to create a culture of tipping a few pennies for good service online.
-We know that a fair number of users of Reddit will give Reddit “gold” to other users in appreciation for great comments… which is particularly impressive since Reddit actually gets the money, not the person who made the inspiring or hilarious comment!
-The key question is not “what do users want to do?”, but “what can users be persuaded to do?”. It will be very hard for most people to rationalize away paying a penny for something they enjoyed… all of us do things every day we don’t personally want to do, but we agree that it is better for all of us if we do the decent thing, and not just the convenient thing. (The right action just needs to be convenient *enough*).

It’s also worth noting that this revenue from the RS will be mostly *extra revenue* for Creators, rather than taking the place of advertising revenue. Most Creators would still be earning a lot of money from advertising as well, because users who aren’t using the RS will be viewing and clicking on ads. From what I can tell, a lot of the people who will click on advertisements are precisely the people who won’t directly pay for content; and the people who prefer to directly pay for content are the ones who never click on ads. So, the Reciprocity service will primarily open a new market for Creators, rather than destroy the old source of income Creators have relied upon.

It’s also possible to almost guaranteee that Creators earn more from RS users than from ads-supported users. A Creator could set a minimum allowable charge for visiting the page (a fee they believe will be higher than the likely amount earned by advertising). Then, if that fee is not higher than the maximum allowable default charge which a Patron is willing to pay, when the Patron visits the page the Creator will earn the maximum they could anticipate earningn.

If the Creator is charging too much for a Patron to be willing to pay a high default charge, the Patron would be routed to the “free” page (from which the Patron could still offer a tip, if they wished to do so).

As for the handful of newspapers/magazines/journals which earn a lot of money from subscriptions, they can continue to demand that frequent readers pay for a subscription (the paywall). The Patrons using an RS who only occasionally read articles would be an additional revenue source on top of subscriptions. The Patrons paying pass-through fees for excerpts read on other sites would probably be an even larger revenue source.

Benefits for Creators:
-There’s literally no reason I can think of to not sign up for the RS model… it would not cost anything, nor require any changes to any websites
-More money
-There’s a huge incentive for Creators to not only sign up for Reciprocity services, but to encourage as many readers as possible to sign up for an ads-free RS. The reason for this is that the harder it is for advertisers to reach their audience, the more advertisers will be willing to pay to reach each person who is still willing to view ads. I.e. Reciprocity services will increase the average revenue from the ads-supported users, too! Creators need people to be competing to give them money, instead of competing to give things away for free.
-The most useful feedback they will have yet gotten
-Validation. Never underestimate the value of emotional rewards for creative types.
-Better rewards for *original content creation*. E.g. the New York Times will no longer have to see a million blogs get the advertising revenue from posts which are primarily based on their original reporting, while their hard-working reporters get nothing.
-Less fear of your content getting stolen (so long as the RS does a decent job of identifying your content and passing payments along to you).
-Finally learning who your real supporters (Patrons) are. This can be surprisingly hard to figure out for the average blogger.
-Giving your work complete prominence for the readers, instead of subjugating it to ads (Contradictory side-note: one appreciation I have of advertisements- at least they have helped to support so much good work up till now! The Internet would have been a poorer place if it weren’t for ads.)
-Creators with just a few passionate followers could actually make a living. There are a lot of Creators who are like this- what they do is very high-quality, and primarily appeals to a specialized niche of enthusiasts.
-Having a company which is on your side- fighting to help your readers have a better experience, fighting to make sure you get paid, fighting to make sure your work isn’t pirated, etc.
-For Creators who do not want to maintain their own website, the RS should let Creators submit work to a central database, which people who *like* presenting stuff online (bloggers, magazines, photographers, news aggregators, etc.) can publish, and the Creator would get most of the pass-thru fees
-Retaining control of their content, to protect their reputation

Benefits for Reciprocity Service providers:
-Lots of revenue, via commissions
-It is extremely valuable to know *what people will actually pay for*. I don’t believe the data Google possesses would be worth as much as the kind of data an RS would glean. There are a lot of ways this information could be used to provide value to individuals and businesses, and earn more money.
-Become a leader in micropayments
-Form constructive relationships with perhaps all of the best Creators, as well as many large media companies, which seems eminently valuable to me

It seems Reciprocity services are eminently feasible. All the technological and cultural elements are there, as far as I can tell, and just need to be put together. I hope there is a seed of something good in this idea :).

What do you think?

Version #16. I’m using Engagement Publishing for this piece.

Coauthors/Acknowledgments: Chris Hurst (technical feedback), Alexandra Marshall (background info),

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