Why tip buttons don't work

Published on May 31, 2023


In a previous story I relayed some background in my thoughts around a digital gift economy. In this post I'll go deeper on some of the related trends in 2023 and provide my perspective.

Membership based systems like Patreon and Substack have done a great job of adding revenue streams for creative work, and they also assign status to the members of the creator's community, but they still treat the creation as a commodity. Participation in these new economies burdens the creator to conform to the rules of distribution. For instance, you are subtly incentivized by the system to create frequent work. Some creative work takes a lot of time.

Tip buttons first showed up on Vimeo. They removed the feature shortly after, but since YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and many other services have implemented their own tip buttons. At surface this seems like a win for the internet's money based gift economy, proof of the ubiquity of the Give button we were imagining, but the reality is people still don't know why they should use this feature.

GIF of twitter's Tip feature.

The tipping metaphor is most commonly understood from the service industry, in which people give more money than their bill because of exceptional service. Good metaphors are useful but in this case it isn't helping to grasp what we are supposed to do. If you've read W. David Marx's book Status & Culture, you'll be attuned to the idea that status is always being exchanged. Tipping in a restaurant is a nuanced exchange of status that is near impossible to imagine through the click of a button on Twitter without some further incentive. Not to mention, with most tip's people are already performing a transaction — it is just icing on the cake.

There were many things that contributed to us shuttering the service, but I still really want this convention to be embedded in daily use of the internet.

I still want the ability to give in this way — so ive made myself a small version of Give.

If you liked this post or something else I'm doing and want to be a part of this ongoing experiment give me some money with the button below, I'll put your name with a link on this page in the order of the people that give. If you don't want your name posted, just say so.

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