Dear websites: let me pay you!
A new browser called Brave hopes to eliminate advertising on the internet in exchange for users paying small fees to the websites they visit. It's a rather interesting potential solution to one of the most existential problems facing the web: good content isn't cheap, but the ads that pay for it are often terrible, and no one's yet sure how to reconcile the two.
The launch last fall of iOS 9 sparked an intense debate about the future of the web. Apple's latest mobile operating system included the ability to block ads within Safari, the default web browser for the iPhone and iPad. With the download of an app known as a "content blocker," users are able to remove most ads from the mobile web, depriving publications of their chief source of revenue. (Ad blockers weren't new, of course, and date back nearly a decade on desktop PCs, but the fear was that Apple would make them so simple to use even your Dad would get into the habit regularly of blocking ads.)
Just how bad these content blockers are affecting online publications' bottom lines is still unclear, but the implication from last fall's debate was obvious: the web, if it's to remain a source of vibrant, useful content, needs to diversify beyond the traditional advertising model.
To try to get a better idea of what the web might look like in the future, I reached out to a few people who are trying to figure out a way to make it so that consumers are more easily able to directly support their favorite websites. While the idea of a "paid web" isn't altogether new—Patreon has been terrific for smaller content creators like podcasters, while Google has its own designs on the matter—efforts like the new web browser Brave do highlight the intense effort being made to help publishers transition into a world where advertising isn't their sole source of revenue.
"We exactly have what you want for web publishers," said Brendan Eich, whose new project, a web browser called Brave, plans to incorporate a bitcoin-based system to let users make micropayments to online content creators. Eich, a co-founder of Mozilla (he served briefly as Mozilla CEO in early 2014 but resigned following criticism of his support of an anti-same-sex marriage law in California) told me that his goal is to make it so that users can say, "I'd like to pay $5 per month to my top 20 sites," and then do so with the click of a mouse.
While Eich did not say exactly when Brave's micropayment system would be in place, another company, called Sourcepoint, which is working on a micropayment system of its own, told me
that people like me may only have to wait until early 2017 before we're able to actually pay for content.
"For $10 per month, I get access to this and 1,000 sites and applications with no ads and no paywall," Ben Barokas, the founder and CEO of Sourcepoint, told me in a recent phone conversation, explaining the broad outlines of how his company's system would work.
Barokas also envisions a scenario that may become commonplace over the next few years where web users, instead of being asked if they're OK with accepting cookies (as you seen when visiting European websites), are asked how they'd like to pay for content: either via traditional advertising, customized advertising (I like companies A, B, and C but not D or E), or, of course, via direct payment.
Look, if in exchange for high-quality online content, I'm given the choice between having my data sliced and diced and then sold to who-the-heck-knows for the purposes of advertising, or instead handing over cash money for access to said content, I'm ready to pay.
And I already do, to the tune of $11 per month for professional wrestling news. My $11 grants access to two weekly newsletters, the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (which is basically the New York Times of wrestling and mixed martial arts) and Figure Four Weekly (which has stood out with its detailed and ongoing coverage of the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker Media saga), as well as more podcasts than I have the time to listen to. All of that is to say that I have no problem paying for high-quality content month in, month out.
"A lot of the foundation has been laid already where consumers are ready" to pay for content online, added Sourcepoint co-founder and COO Brian Kane, pointing to the rise of services like Netflix and Spotify possibly at the expense of pirated content. "We want to see a wide variety of content proliferate on the web. That's why we're here!"