Interview With ProTip's Chris Ellis On Saving Media
Christopher Ellis sits down with Cointelegraph for an in-depth interview on ProTip, the present and future of Independent media and more.
Art by: Jing Jin
As I made my way through the brain washing institution known as The United States public school system, teachers commended my writing, but also felt the need to point out that the publishing industry was dying. They told me to put aside whatever talent I had and work in a different, presumably soul crushing career. They said that the internet was killing newspapers and they couldn't imagine a world where someone got paid writing on the internet.
In retrospect, their warnings sound silly. The internet did indeed kill off newspapers, or at least, pushed them to the brink of irrelevancy, but the internet didn't kill the publishing industry; it enhanced it. There is a greater demand for content now than at any time in human history. This applies across all forms of media, the written word included.
The 1970s was the peak of American journalism. Woodward and Bernstein had just inspired a whole generation of journalists and our media outlets were run by, if not people with integrity, then at least news people. They may have prioritized readership numbers and profits over integrity, but often integrity led to those things. It was when our media organizations were swallowed up by conglomerates that the high watermark of American journalism transformed into the Corporate Age of Journalism. When NBC – as just one example – had to prioritize GE's profits over its own, it made it much more difficult for NBC to cover GE or any of its subsidiaries in an unbiased way.
That is a story in of itself, but as journalism online grows and we begin to enter the Age of Decentralized Journalism, we have– unfortunately– allowed the shackles of the past dictate how we disseminate media in the information age. Advertising is still king in the journalism world, and it infects everything around us. That is fine for cat videos or hilariously bad karaoke videos, but when it comes to publishing something important, advertising at its best is a necessary evil and the mortal enemy of truth at its worst.
Crypto-journalist Christopher Ellis works for World Crypto News, was an early supporter of Feathercoin and hosts the bitcoin focused YouTube show Chris Before Coffee. He and a team of five others are attempting to cut the shackles weighing down the publishing industry with ProTip. To be honest, a lot of companies are trying to cut those shackles with microtipping but the automatic-microtip concept has rarely been tried (Autotip is one other example) and ProTip in particular keeps a sharp eye on ease of use for both the user and publisher.
ProTip is a browser extension. Users top it off with bitcoin every week and at the end of the week, that fund is distributed to the top ten websites the user visited that included a bitcoin address somewhere on the site.
The main feature that gives ProTip a chance to succeed where other solutions have failed, is that publishers don't have to integrate it in order for it to benefit them, only readers do. While there will be plenty of options that publishers can modify from their end, like pay-what-you-want subscriptions or pay walls, any publisher that puts a bitcoin address will receive a portion of the user's tips, assuming that the publisher exceeds the user's custom qualifications.
Users can whitelist or blacklist certain websites or addresses, and if there are multiple addresses on one page the amount will be split among the first three. Users can set qualifications such as time spent on a page or how often they visited the page.
Christopher Ellis took some time out of running the campaign to answer some of my questions Protip, the future and present of media and issues he has been having with IndieGoGo and Paypal. It is a long interview but the TL:DR is this: independent media needs to break away from advertising, and ProTip is one of the most innovative approaches I have seen working towards that. It also needs funding, so go fund it, you cheap bastards.
Cointelegraph: Do you want to take a minute to give the readers a basic overview of ProTip?
Christopher Ellis: ProTip is a wallet in the browser. It looks for Bitcoin addresses on websites and makes automatic weekly tips based on the time you spent enjoying their work.
From the point of view of website owners, like you guys at Cointelegraph, that gives you a chance to reach out to your readers and invite them to install the app.
Now, all you have to do is get your contributors to put their Bitcoin addresses at the end of their articles or you can put it in the HTML header of the webpage.
CT: Why did you decide to take time out of making creative content like you normally do and put it towards a project like this?
CE: I took the time out of making content, so that I could make an app to help people like me make money, so I could go back to making videos again. This idea had been floating around in the community for a while, it first came to me in about May 2014 [link]. Then, someone else came in and said they thought of it in 2012 [link]. Every time it was mentioned, people in the bitcoin community got excited. When I talked about it to other journalist friends, they loved the idea behind it but just needed some explanation of the bitcoin side of things. So, I could see what work needed to be done I just needed someone to work with.
Then, my friend Leo told me he was thinking of leaving his job and was looking for some project ideas. One day he just sprang it on me and we started working on ProTip over Christmas in 2014.
CT: Awesome. I like how ProTip automatically scans a website for bitcoin addresses and in the meta data. I know the campaign states that the browser history is deleted once the weekly donation is made and everything is locally stored, but what is stored for that week: The entire content of the page or just the addresses and how long was spent on each corresponding site?
CE: I will need to confirm with Leo but as far as I know it’s just the website, bitcoin address and duration on page. By website, I mean [only the] URL and the Title of the page.
CT: How about a mobile app? Any plans? Stretch goal maybe?
CE: Mobile is a changing environment. At the moment, Chrome still dominates and so we wanted to focus on the area of technology that would benefit the artists and content makers the most.
You are seeing a lot of open source hardware entering the mobile space to compete with the glued up proprietary stuff from the likes of Apple. As the hardware improves and the browser on the mobile gets better then we will look in to moving here also. Though at the moment, when you look at the overall behavior of most people, they do interact with desktop in some way during their day. So, as long as they interact with a desktop browser the concept still works.
CT: I would say that is especially true for the kind of people who would be the early adopters for something like this.
CE: Yes. The app distributes a proportion of funds between your favorite websites, so the opportunity still exists, even if we cannot capture all the behavior across devices.
CT: "However Chris and the team grew increasingly frustrated as they noticed that many aspiring journalists were taking to PR and Marketing roles instead of speaking the truth." [from ProTip's IndieGoGo page]
This is something I have noticed and loathed in publishing, bitcoin and non-bitcoin alike. Do you feel that Advertising is the enemy of independent journalism and would you like to talk about that a bit?
CE: Wow. Do you want me to? Because I can, but it’s like a pet hate, I spent 12 years around advertising people.
CT: Well, it is something I feel very strongly about. I have left jobs because they wanted me to write promo [promotional articles].
CE: Right. It’s hard to get paid while acting on your moral conscience. There are huge conflicts of interest in Bitcoin ecosystem itself. Izabella Kaminska sends me press releases she gets in her inbox sometimes, asking her to promote this and that scam.
I want honesty to pay, because that is what Satoshi laid out in his original whitepaper. I wanted to work on a project that was keeping in scope of the original vision of bitcoin.
What if we could build a tool that made honesty pay more than fraud? Giving artists, writers, videographers, the tools they needed to connect with their audience in a way that is more meaningful than Like buttons.
Take a look at Taylor Swifts @replies [on Twitter]. It’s mostly her fans saying “OMG follow me back." People want connection, they want experiences and the surprise of something new. Taylor has talent but she also got lucky and this is not the norm for many artists.
The ones that don’t sell out lead a tormented life where they question whether they are doing the right thing, [or] if they are good enough.
The ones that do sell out go in to marketing and PR. Which is an industry designed to manipulate the way people make decisions.
Please quote Doc Searls who said “Advertising is a recommendation from someone you don’t trust.”
Advertising gets a lot of its ideas from the military and many strategies were pioneered by the Nazi propaganda machine in WWII. It’s why you hear them talk about “dominating this marketing” “targeting this audience.” It’s a corrupt profession, mainly made up of the kids who enjoyed making the posters when they were at school. They thought it’s what life would be like; just making posters and controlling perceptions :)
CT: That was awesome.
CE: Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.
CT: No problem. You mentioned on Twitter [a few days ago] that Paypal and/or IndieGoGo was giving you problems, how is that going?
CE: Well, I spent two hours on email and the phone to Paypal yesterday. They told me I had good standing and had no restrictions on my account. So I setup a new Paypal account and tried that and it still didn’t work.
They told us it was Indigogo. Then like a boss, [Chief Entertainment Officer] Thomas Hunt stepped up with his Paypal and we connected that and now it works So hopefully we haven’t lost out on donors. We passed $2k including bitcoin donations a few hours ago, but we still have not heard back from Indie GoGo.
CT: Yeah I noticed, the two donation methods are pretty much neck and neck, with Fiat donations holding a slight lead at the moment. Does that surprise you at all and which did you expect to gather more donations? [Note: Fiat donations are now ahead significantly, although Bitcoin donations continue to come in steadily]
CE: We had no idea what to expect which is why we made this so flexible. The campaign is made up of stretch goals. So, if the community doesn’t feel it can make it to $50,000 that’s okay. We will work with what we get and deliver as best we can. We aren’t trying to boil the ocean or take over with a new Network. We’ve just focused on a handful of simple features that we think will have a lot of impact.
CT: What about altcoin support? I didn't see any mention of them on the campaign page. could other coins be added easily or maybe a shapeshift-like service integration? I know it is open source so someone could add it, but are alts part of your plans at all?
CE: Yeah actually, it is and I should probably talk about that in an upcoming show. Obviously, I like Feathercoin because I was there early on, but I also like Dogecoin and I think that could be the right community to get behind an idea like this too.
Again, this would be based on the money we raise, but if the mood is right and everyone’s up for it I don’t see why not. Remember, it’s about the producers, so we have to do what’s right for them.
CT: Awesome. I noticed you guys have a vanity address, just curious, how long did that take to create?
CE: About a week, on an old Linux mint instal I have. It’s just a small laptop I got off of Ebay. In fact, that was crowd funded last year by @seafarer124 one of my sponsors on Twitter, please give him a shout out for me, he’s been very generous and good to me.
CT: Will do. So, I want to talk about the Micro Subscriptions and the potential power of that. Would it be difficult for a web designer with a "Pay what you want" subscription model to detect ProTip is being used and automatically open up access?
CE: Correct, this is one of the stretch goals we have which is why if the community thinks we’re the right people, we need to make it to $50k, because this [part] will be hard from a technical point of view.
Leo thinks he has the answer but we’re going to need time to test it out
CT: I thought I had read that if there were two or more addresses, it would split up the bitcoin accordingly? Is that correct? [Note: I was probably thinking of Autotip]
CE: At the moment, the current alpha we have does the top 3 addresses it finds. In fact, in the FAQ we go in to more details.
Could you please mention AutoTip? The timing of these two projects has clashed, we obviously started work on ProTip before Chris did AutoTip in Miami in Jan. So, what we have done [to accommodate that] is we used his meta tag in the HTML header as the first thing the app will look for when arriving on a page.
That means artists won’t be forced to choose which app to use. They can just use either and it will work. We want to play nice with others because there are a number of companies entering the tipping space and that can only be a good thing for artists. As long as we collaborate, the artist will win.
CT: I agree. But do you want to talk about the differences between Autotip and ProTip?
CE: Yeah, sure. So, Autotip only looks in the HTML header which requires some technical know how on the part of the site owner.
Many people run free blogs hosted on wordpress.com, tumbler, some people have Youtube channels and cannot get in to the header. So, our vision for this product is to reach out to everyone, even non-technical people, we want this to be inclusive.
At the same time, there are some security benefits to putting the address in a meta tag. So, we take Chris’ approach as standard as we agree with it. It was also what Peter Todd recommended as well.
We also have some cool blacklist/whitelist features that we think people will love, it allows you to subscribe to your favorite artists and you can block domains like Blockchain.info/address for example,
so that you don’t accidentally pay some random address just because you followed a link from Cointelegraph on an article about a theft.
CT: Hah, right.
CE: We also only pay the top 10 websites per week to prevent spamming. The tips must be earned.
CT: Is that variable though? Could I set it to top 50 or 20 if I wanted to as the user?
CE: Not at the moment, though I will feed that back to Leo as a suggestion. We have three settings for how you want the app to behave.
CE: We don’t want to give too much choice as people tend to get overwhelmed, but at the same time we need to strike the right balance, so if users feel strongly about having granular controls then we will take it on board.
CT: Maybe for the last question, we do something a little heady? The internet has made it so content creators can get out there, but the long promised microtipping platform hasn't really materialized as of yet. Bitcoin and services like ChangeTip and others are making it more popular, and we are, I think, just starting to see the fruits of that. Do you feel that microtipping as an economy model and more general, the democratizing of content creation, are merely enhanced with cryptocurrencies, or do you feel that digital currencies are absolutely essential?
CE: This question requires heavy lifting, because we haven’t used the term micropayment [and] that was deliberate, your time is your wealth. We all get the same amount of it and so online your attention becomes your labor, and everyone competes for it like a commodity.
I think that cryptocurrencies have made it possible to transmit value across space and time in a really novel and elegant way that is honest about the true cost of publishing. Trust doesn’t scale, but at the same time I don’t know about micropayments [either] because there is also a cognitive overhead that comes with economic transactions and that’s not financial, it’s mental.
[Internet writer] Clay Shirky talked about this a lot. What we have done is front loaded the cognitive overhead into one mental transaction per week. Hopefully, we have turned something long and painful in to something quick and enjoyable. The cryptocurrency side simple makes our jobs as tool builders easier. It’s democratizing, we don’t have to apply to FinCen or be regulated.
We just build the tool and put it out there because we don’t have to be the custodians of the funds and we don’t want to be. The way we got around the micropayment hurdles with the miner’s fees was by batching the payment weekly in one go. Bitcoin charges a fee based on data not the amount of money. We felt this was a lot better than centralizing it on a server which comes with ongoing engineering costs and is a liability because it can be hacked. (sorry for the long answer)
CT: No worries man. It`s great. Anything else you'd like to say to our readers?
CE: Yeah, get out there and create stuff that people enjoy and reward other people for doing the same.
We would like to thank Christopher Ellis for taking time to speak to us. If you want to learn more about ProTip and help fund it, you can find its Bitcoin donation address here, and its IndieGoGo campaign here.
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