Oct 30, 2012 · 4 minutes

Vimeo has just launched a tip jar to help content creators earn money from their videos. A “pay to view” option is coming soon. These are the first steps in what could become a widespread micropayments ecosystem on the video-sharing site. It's a positive step for content creators. While tips are not about to fix their revenue problems, they could become handy bonuses.

The last decade’s digital disruption of the media industry has had the countervailing effects of vastly expanding content creators’ reach while, in many cases, substantially contracting their money-making ability. Even as newspapers have become more widely read, for instance, they have had to make cuts to their newsrooms. Take the Denver Post. Today it announced its readership has reached record levels, largely thanks to mobile. But back in May, it laid off two-thirds of its copy-editing staff. The Guardian is in similar straits. The New York Times reports record traffic to its website but falling revenue.

The economic realities of the digital media era suggest that initiatives such as Vimeo’s tip jar are only going to become more prevalent. It may be that in the near future content creators value media brands more as platforms than employers. As editorial budgets shrink, journalists, photographers, filmmakers, and illustrators may find that they have to supplement their incomes in ways other than straight publishing fees or salaries. Think of it as the freelancification of media, and a tip jar could be one way to do that.

I recently reported on one tip-jar journalist from New Zealand, where my friend Keith Ng solicited donations for a story he broke about a disease and a symptom encyclopedia used to deal with it. Public Address, the blog Ng posted his story to, didn’t pay the writer, but he managed to raise more than $4,500 in donations through the website GiveALittle.co.nz. A story of similar length would have earned the writer about $500 had it been published in a newspaper or magazine in New Zealand.

I’m surprised tipping isn’t already more widespread in the media industry. In the US especially, it is already a widely accepted part of society and the service economy. In his 2002 paper “The Social Norm of Tipping,” Ofer Azhar, then at Northwestern University, noted that there are 33 service professions in which tipping occurs, and that the tips in US restaurants amounted to about $26 billion a year. The leap to tipping for content should be a minor one, given that the practise is already so well baked into our collective consciousness.

Maybe part of the reason tipping hasn’t yet become the norm for digital media is that it is still largely a cumbersome process. Even on Vimeo, you’re required to enter your credit card number in order to leave a tip. However, online payments are becoming increasingly easy and common, thanks to the normalization of Amazon’s one-click payments, and digital wallet services such as Google Wallet and Square. As our wallets become increasingly tied to our mobile devices, on which we do much of our media consumption, tipping is only going to become even easier.

Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo are also normalizing the idea of consumer-financed content and products. Yeah, that’s what’s been happening for decades with newsstand sales and video rentals, but this time, thanks to the Internet, the content has the ability to reach a much larger audience, who in turn can choose the price they want to pay. Tip jars have the potential to unlock some of the power of the long-tail, too, giving a piece of content life and value beyond its initial release date.

At this point, though, it seems unlikely that tipping will ever take the place of fees or salaries for content creators. As “Office Space” has taught us, even fractions of pennies can add up quickly, but for most journalists or filmmakers they won’t be enough to pay the bills. For the time being, at least, the most serious journalists and filmmakers will have to rely on advances and story fees from existing major brands, such as film studios or magazines and newspapers such as Vanity Fair or the New York Times. It’s also true that not every story or video will impress readers enough to elicit a donation. Keith Ng’s piece, for example, was a major investigative scoop, and although he publishes regularly on the Public Address blog, it was one of only two pieces for which he has solicited tips, and they came months apart.

To that end, content creators on Vimeo shouldn’t expect the new tips feature to pay the rent. But tips could certainly be a meaningful bonus for a job well done. And for the consumer? Well, it can make us feel that little bit more virtuous.

To test Vimeo’s tip-jar, I donated $1 to “jurjen versteeg” for his short film “A History of the Title Sequence.” After doing so, Vimeo emailed me a nice little note. “In addition to making jurjen versteeg’s day,” it read, “you’re supporting the hard work that goes into making great video. That makes you awesome.”

Agreed, Vimeo. Agreed.