The internet has given us an inexhaustible supply of things to read, listen to and watch.
For many years, the game was about consuming and hoarding as much of that material as possible without having to pay for it. We couldn’t believe our luck. We’d flock around people who happened to be funny, entertaining or interesting and enjoy their output for free.
By and large, it never occurred to us to offer them money and it never occurred to the creators to ask for any.
Slowly, that’s changing. Crowdfunding campaigns have demonstrated that a direct relationship between creator and audience can yield financial rewards.
Patreon extended that relationship further with monthly subscription payments in return for content. Today, creators might direct their audience to websites such as Ko-Fi, Buy Me a Coffee and Venmo with the suggestion that they might send a donation or a tip – and increasingly, without obligation, people do so.
Twitter is now climbing aboard with a new feature, Tip Jar, which facilitates direct, one-off payments to those whose tweets we value. It seems there's a growing realisation that people who entertain us online might deserve some recompense other than likes, retweets and kudos. Generosity is, perhaps, on the rise.
This slow change isn’t just about audience attitudes, however; it’s also about creators wrestling with the idea of asking for money.
“At first I felt really uncomfortable about it,” says screenwriter and podcaster Paul Rose, also known as Mr Biffo.
“Unlike my day job, where I get paid for writing for TV, this was more personal. It felt like I was asking people to pay for me rather than the product, if that makes sense. But it instantly did better than I expected.”
Comedy writer Amanda Wilkie, who tweets under the name @Pandamoanimum, echoes this.
“It was something I had to think long and hard about,” she says. “It didn't sit comfortably with me, initially, but I made it clear to people that there's no obligation at all [to donate]. I suppose I didn't want people to pity me. But I was astounded by how generous people were.”
Given the anonymity of the internet and the wealth of content thereon, why would we choose to give money to creators without obligation?
“This is not an exchange relationship,” says Vignesh Yoganathan, associate professor in global marketing at Sheffield University. “People are, at a very psychological level, clearly satisfied with what they're receiving, whatever it might be – but there’s no social pressure [to give]. Nobody's keeping tabs. There is some other kind of psychological purpose.”
The professor recently published a paper studying donations made on the video platform Twitch, where viewers are able to tip creators and see their donation amounts appear during live-streams in real time.
Yoganathan explains that this very public act of giving has a number of motives, including craving acknowledgement from a creator they like (the larger the donation, the more likely the streamer is to react on-screen) and wanting fellow audience members to recognise their generosity.
But there are altruistic motives, too. Neuroscience has shown that when we do good, it makes us feel good. And there’s a growing understanding of the parallels between traditional media and online entertainment.
“I watch [Twitch streamers] two to three times a week, it's almost like going to the cinema,” said one respondent in Yoganathan’s study. Given that, why wouldn’t we want to pay?
Wilkie doesn’t discount the effect of the pandemic on all this. “It has hit people so hard in so many ways,” she says. “I think some people have looked upon themselves as quite lucky [by comparison], and are wondering how they could help someone else out.”
This behaviour has been observed on various funding platforms. Last year GoFundMe introduced a new category of giving towards living expenses, and donations totalled more than $100 million over a 12-month period.
Twitter’s Tip Jar, currently rolling out to a few selected accounts, is just one example of social media capitalising on this trend. Since last June, Facebook has expanded fan subscriptions, where audiences can pay a monthly fee to creators. Late last year, Instagram launched virtual badges, which can be bought by viewers during live video streams to reward creators directly. YouTube’s Superchats feature also allows viewers to donate; if they do so, their comments are made more visible during live-streams.
More broadly, platforms such as Clubhouse, Spotify and Soundcloud are experimenting with ways to allow creators to be paid directly by those consuming their output. It points toward a more transparent version of the internet economy, with direct payments replacing sponsorship and advertising models.
But whether it works, according to Yoganathan, really depends on the platform.
“Each of them have specific dynamics,” he says. “The kind of audiences that dominate these platforms are different, demographically as well as psychologically. To be honest, I think Twitter lacks the social infrastructure for this to work.”
The financial infrastructure is growing fast, however, with multiple services such as CashApp and Stripe enabling money transfer at negligible cost. Website services such as Willow are integrating tipping into pages, removing any friction which might deter donations.
As a result, audiences are gaining greater control over to whom they send money and, in an era where artisan and bespoke products are prized, people seem to want to reward the authenticity and honesty of their favourite online creators.
“I feel like the audience have got my back,” says Rose. “They might not like everything I do, but they’re happy for me to explore creative whims. It’s taught me that people want to be involved and be part of it, and that I really shouldn’t devalue what I do.”