Ad-blocking alternative gives back to websites based on your browsing

"Tipsy" funnels microdonations to content providers based on your how much time you spend browsing on different websites

The vast majority of online content is free to access, which is great for consumers but not so fair to creators. We “pay” via the intimate browsing data we give to content providers and the attention we pay to advertisements - and this gives folks like MIT professor David Karger pause.

“I don’t think it’s right that the only options are to subscribe to a specific outlet, to see distracting ads, or to give up our privacy,” says Karger, a researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Consumers have come to hate ads, to the point that almost 200 million people around the world actively use ad-blocking software. Is there a better option?

Karger thinks so, and he is part of a CSAIL team that has developed an alternative: Tipsy, a Chrome extension that lets you voluntarily contribute money to the sites you visit based on your browsing habits.

All a user has to do is download the extension; content creators interested in receiving donations simply add a one-line file to their site and provide a PayPal or Dwolla account to the system. This ease of implementation has drawn the attention of companies like ProPublica, and the team has been working with other outlets to add the extension to their sites.

Karger says that he has major issues with traditional models. “There a lot of people like me who value their time and privacy from ads more than their money,” he says. “And subscriptions to a specific site are a coarse solution, because they require a commitment to a content provider, when maybe all you want to read is a single article.”

“Tipsy,” he says, “allows for that kind of granularity.”

Notably, Tipsy does not share any information with third-parties - all your browsing details stays with you in your browser. For now, Tipsy sends periodic notifications through your browser, but may soon allow for other options like email and text notifications.

The project also includes recent master’s graduate Philippe Schiff and Tim Branyen, a software engineer at the open-source technology company Boucoup.

Team members believe Tipsy has major advantages over other microdonation sites that have had limited success. Where systems like Patreon requires additional fees, an MIT-funded research project like Tipsy is, if used with Dwolla, completely fee-free. With the microdonation platform Flattr, users have to actively “tip” every time they read a noteworthy story; Karger feels that this is simply “too much cognitive load,” and so Tipsy instead lets users choose how much money to donate each month and then divvies it out to each site based on browsing usage.

Above all, Tipsy is easy for content creators to employ - it works on any site, doesn’t impact the site’s design, and is compatible with other payment systems.

“Currently you've got all these competing donation systems, and a company has to pick which ones to integrate into their site, and then a consumer has to sign up with al* of them if they want to make donations to all the sites they visit,” he says. “Tipsy makes everything work with a single text file.”

In the future, the team intends to create more sophisticated history mechanisms that would give users a better sense of how much time they spend on each site. They say that they could also picture the tool working well for sites like Wikipedia that already rely on donations.

“I don’t really view it as tipping, so much as making an ongoing gift to the people who keep you informed about the world,”  says Schiff. “We all ‘subscribe’ to to the Internet, and so I think it’s important to make sure that the content creators are paid their due directly.”

Tipsy is funded in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which seeks to “promote quality journalism and advance media innovation.”