The goose is getting fat
It is that time of year again, when Wikipedia rolls out the collection plate and asks each of us to donate cash to the organisation, and which once again makes us question if content creators can ever get a fair share of the internet revenues.
Go to a Wikipedia page during December and chances are the top of the page will be dominated by a banner asking you to donate "the price of a cup of coffee" to keep Wikipedia running. This year the pitch says "Time is running out in 2017 to help us. We depend on donations averaging about £10. Only a tiny portion of our readers give". I am not sure the appeal hits the right note for the UK audience, with its air of expectation and the suggestion that we sit around frittering away our money on coffee when it would be much better if we donated it to one of the ten biggest websites in the world.
Is Wikipedia worth, on average, £10 per year, per internet user? Perhaps it is, but remember, when you donate to Wikipedia you are donating to the network running costs. You are not donating to the content creators, the thousands upon thousands of people who freely give their time, their research, their writing, and their photography to populate the pages of Wikipedia. Neither is it rewarding the hundreds of people who contribute programming improvements and bug fixes to the free and open source software which powers Wikipedia.
Wikipedia obviously needs significant infrastructure to provide its service and that costs money. It seems reasonable that the people who use wikipedia the most should be the ones who pay for it, but that isn't as straightforward as it seems either. If you go to Google and type in, say, General Motors, the results page includes the Google infographic on the right hand side which gives summary information about General Motors, bullet point information such as date it was founded, logos, etc, and that information is culled from Wikipedia. If you ask Amazon's Alexa to tell you more about Runcorn, chances are it is going to read out information from a Wikipedia article. In those cases and others, information freely created by content creators is being used to support lucrative business models of internet giants. Perhaps those giants should dig deeper into their pockets to finance the running costs of these sites.
So much of the current internet economy relies on individuals creating great original content and giving it away for free. If we don't find a way to support content creators, we will all be the poorer for it. It doesn't need that much money to support a content creator, but the problem stems from the difficulty in handling micropayments. Swedish company Flattr reckons it has a solution to this problem.
Under its scheme, creators of original content can apply to join Flattr as a beneficiary, and as a donor you can subscribe for whatever amount you want.
As a donor, you continue to use the internet as normal and the Flattr add-on monitors your browser usage, (with very strict security and privacy controls). When you visit a Flattr-approved site multiple times, or show interest by spending a long time browsing that site, Flattr records this, and at the end of each month, Flattr splits your donation between the sites you have been using. This might mean that you individually are donating tiny amounts to most sites, but the economy of scale means Flattr can make a single bulk payment to each content creator which reflects the popularity of their work.
The important point is that Flattr doesn't feed you adverts and it doesn't profile you and sell your information. It doesn't require you to register for websites or click on icons to show you want to donate. You don't have to make decisions about how much you want to spend on any individual website or worry that you are running up a bill. It just lets you painlessly and fairly split the total amount you want to donate between the sites and authors you are actually using that month.
If this model works, it has the potential to change the way authors, artists, and news writers are paid. There are, of course, going to be problems that need to be worked out, and much will depend on Flattr's ability to weed out the spammers and charlatans trying to game the system with click bait and useless sites duplicating wiki content, and instead ensure it is original content creators who are the recipients of our donations.
I suspect most individuals will still be reluctant to commit to a monthly donation and will feel they already pay for the internet via their phone line or mobile phone, but perhaps this also gives society an opportunity to revolutionise our thinking. For example, if all ISPs in the UK agreed to voluntarily donate just one penny per broadband subscriber per month to a scheme like this to reward UK content creators, that represents a hundred thousand pounds or more that could be shared out. That would go a long way supporting small sites, and that penny per month is much less than the price of a cup of coffee.
21st December 2017
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