Take a look to the left of this text.
No, not way over there in that large black and gray area.
Right here, next to the "R" that starts this sentence. See that box? That's a Tweetme widget. If you click on that, then you can post something about this article on Twitter. This should, ideally, attract more readers to this article and heighten your reputation amongst your Twitter followers, who will marvel at your wisdom for finding and recommending such a well-written missive.
Or something like that.
These ubiquitous widgets, whether for Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, or what have you, can be found all over the Internet, on sites looking to get the word out about their content via social media. They are not critical to the success of a site, but they help grease the wheels of getting more traffic.
But what if there were a widget that would let you do more than send traffic to a given web site? What if, with a small investment and a few simple clicks, you could actually help fund sites that host something you like, be it the written word, multimedia content, or even your favorite free or open source software project?
That's the idea behind Flattr, a social micropayment system from Sweden that should provide projects and ventures on the Internet a new way to receive all-important funding.
Flattr was something I found last week when doing a little research about commercial vs. non-commercial open source projects and how open core could be just as valid a business model as anything else that's been tried thus far.
Upon mentioning Flattr just the once, I was pounced upon by their staff, who urged me to give it a further look. They didn't need to; microfinances is something in which I have a keen interest, and this certainly falls into that category.
Flattr addresses a real need on the Internet: a feasible micropayment system. Since credit cards are the typical currency on the Web, walking through a site's check out system can be tedious. Services like PayPal can mitigate this a bit, but it's still a hassle for small payments.
Flattr circumvents the hassle by providing givers a centralized location to enter the funds they want to donate to Flattr participants. Once logged into the system, you submit the amount of money (in Euros) you want to donate to, well, anything during a given month. Then, you can go on your merry way and explore the web as you like. If you happen to run into a widget like the ones on the right (which are not live), and you like the content/project hosting the Flattr widget, then you click it to donate a share of your monthly funds to that project.
The cool thing about this is that however many of these projects you click to support, you won't pay more than what you declared for the month. If you opt to donate €25 during a given month, and clicked to support a total of 25 Flattr sites, then each site will get €0,90 from you (Flattr takes a 10 percent fee). If you click on just three sites that month, each site gets €7,50; 100 sites, €0,22.
Of course, getting something like 30 cents US from one user isn't exactly a pot of gold, but when combined with similar (or larger or smaller) donations from many users, a decent source of monthly income might be possible.
Using Flattr is very simple, once you sign up, you contribute your funds and then you can either use the site's master list to find a project to which you might want to donate funds, or you can sign up your own project, be it blog, software project, or any other creative outlet. No freeloaders allowed, however: all participants are required to give at least €2 through Flattr every month.
Right now, this is a very Euro-centric site, and not just the currency: many of the participating sites have European origins. And there's potential political hot potatoes to be found as well: the recently leaked compendium of secret US military reports on Wikileaks is one of the Flattr participants. Much of this localization stems from the origins of the Flattr project, and the fact that right now Flattr is in closed beta.
I expect that once Flattr is opened to the general public, the geo-diversity of the community will explode. The upside of a well-run micropayment system would be too attractive to keep people away, both givers and receivers. Definitely keep an eye out for this one.