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Mural - Web monetization in the arts - project narrative report

Mute

Web monetization in the arts

Mural Software, s.r.o.

Final project report to Grant for the Web

Douglas Arellanes, 23 December 2021

Artwork from "Phosphenes" by Ronan Devlin

Commissioned by Mural as part of the project

From "Submerged Landscapes" by Melanie King

About "Web monetization in the arts"

The “Web monetization in the arts” project explored ways web monetization can be put to work among visual artists and visual storytellers. This involved adding support for web monetization to our Mural software and its dependencies, as well as outreach to arts communities.

Still from "Breathe" by Louise O'Boyle

Commissioned as part of the project

Project Activities

Project Conceptualization

The “Web monetization in the arts” project had two primary areas of activity: Software development and community outreach. The software development activities included the adaptation of the Mural software to support web monetization. It also conceptualized how web monetization could be made as flexible and tangible as possible in the Mural user experience, and then the software was rewritten to adapt to these findings. 

These assumptions were then tested with a group of five artists selected for paid commissions. The Mural 2 development team worked with the artists, first to educate them on web monetization and to work with them on the steps necessary to create accounts on the Uphold service, but also to create their digital artworks using Mural 2. Feedback from the artists during the process was also collected and helped to guide the feature set in the release.

The Mural 2 software is now available for download and a formal release announcement will be held on Monday, January 3, 2022.

Five artists residing in the United Kingdom were selected for commissions: The photographer and printmaker Melanie King was selected as lead artist for the large commission, and the artists Louise O’Boyle, Ronan Devlin, Colin Frank and Olga Suchanova were selected for small commissions. 

The artworks are available online on the Mural website. All five of the artworks have web monetization enabled. For users unwilling or unable to set up Coil accounts, we also have made it possible for the artists to create access codes for their additional content. These access codes can be made accessible via sites such as Patreon or KoFi as a way for artists to make money. It will also help us gather data on how artists share their work and help us to evaluate the different degrees of control the artists have over monetization.

The project’s community outreach activities are described in greater detail in Appendix I: Community outreach and artworks.

From "Transforming Discarded Objects" by Colin Frank

Commissioned as part of the project

Software development

What Mural is and does

Mural is a native open source application (Windows, macOS, Linux) which takes users’ already curated collection of multimedia and allows users to create rich content for the web without any technical knowledge of html, css, or javascript. The software can be downloaded from the Mural website or from Github.

The Mural software has two main parts: The editor and the frontend. The Mural editor's main job is to assemble a user’s content as a sequence of scrollytelling items. Each item has been themed in a way to accentuate images, videos, and text to better tell visual stories.

Users must download and run the Mural software to create the stories. They are then exported for no-hassle hosting. Mural will export the visual story as a folder of html, css, js, and static multimedia. All Mural stories are static files, and can be hosted on any web server or through distributed networks such as IPFS.

Mural 2 development

The largest part of work in the “Web monetization in the arts” project was devoted to the development of the Mural 2 release. The major work items in the release included:

User interface and experience design

-- Support for web monetization

-- The addition of a “movable paywall” inside stories so that creators can set the point where they want to monetize their content

--Refactoring the software to use React, an industry-standard development framework

-- Use of Bootstrap CSS on the front end 

-- An import and export format for Mural stories

User experience design

For the Mural 2 release, we worked with Kiona Hagen Niehaus, a Berlin-based UX designer, artist, technologist and UX designer. She was given a design brief document written by the Mural team to work with, and put together a second user survey. The responses were used to inform her design decisions.

The resulting user experience design ideas included the following key features:

-- Addition of a “movable paywall.” The paywall can be moved to any position in the sequence of a story, enabling users to decide on their own which content is monetized. Users who do not have Coil installed see a screen with a red curtain image, informing them that the rest of the content requires monetization or an access code. The movable paywall is not seen by Coil users. For them, monetization occurs at the moment the ‘play’ button is pressed.

-- Addition of a Payment menu where users put in their payment pointer. The payment menu also makes use of probabilistic revenue sharing as a feature. This enables artists to share their proceeds with co-creators, curators, dealers or arts institutions. Mural’s payment pointer is added to the user’s probabilistic revenue sharing at a rate of 10%. We see this as a way to raise funds for continued development of the project. This is communicated to users clearly in the Payment menu, and should the project grow, this percentage will be adjusted accordingly.

-- Moving the Preview window to be stand-alone

-- Keeping the item buttons permanently on screen in the editor

-- Adding import and export of Mural stories in progress - there was previously no way for one Mural user to save their story and send it to another Mural user.

From "Submerged Landscapes" by Melanie King

Commissioned as part of the project

Project expectations

Expectations for the project were different for its users than for its developers, but everyone expected to learn about web monetization.

From the artists’ perspective, they were interested in trying out not only new multimedia software, but they were also curious about web monetization as a concept, as well as in cryptocurrencies - although none of the artists held cryptocurrency before the project.

Special care was taken to be explicit about the amount of money the artists could expect to make from their work. In order for the artwork to make an equivalent to the GBP 350 small commission, for example, would require Coil-enabled visitors to spend an aggregate of 1,379 hours on the artwork to make a similar amount.

We were careful to manage expectations in this regard. Despite this, the artists responded positively to being able to see almost instantaneously how much money was coming into their XRP accounts from the Interledger.

On the side of the Mural team, the expectations had to do with being able to add new features and functionality, and to refine and extend the use case for Mural being used by artists. 

From "Thames - Stream of Consciousness" by Olga Suchanova

Unexpected developments

The covid-19 pandemic severely affected all aspects of the project, causing disruptions that resulted in the project's three no-cost extensions. On the software development side, there was a delay to find React and JavaScript developers capable of doing the work, but this was eventually resolved by the recruitment of new developers Edouard Richard and Loic Nogues, and at the end of the project by a major effort by Mural CTO Naomi Aro.

The artists’ work was not affected by the pandemic, thankfully. 

From "Phosphenes" by Ronan Devlin

Commissioned as part of the project

Project outcomes

The “Web monetization in the arts” project officially ended on 30 November 2021. The artists’ works were published on 22 December 2021, with the official Mural 2 release planned for 3 January 2022 so as not to be overshadowed by the holidays.

Software development

Because Mural development takes place on the open source Github platform, users were able to see exactly when work was being performed. Project activity in the period from October 2019, as measured in code commits, is shown in the following graph:

Mural code commits, October 2020 to December 2021

The Mural 2 software is open source and available for free download for MacOS, Windows and Linux. It includes all of the features discussed in this document, as well as a large number of smaller improvements. 

Artist commissions

The five digital artworks commissioned by Mural as part of the “Web monetization in the arts” project are available for viewing online.  

In addition, Mural has both the exported artworks in .zip format and in the .mural interchange format.

Body of knowledge on web monetization and XRP

Another outcome of this project is a body of knowledge shared among the Mural team on the implementation of web monetization in both a technical and an arts context. Because we have spent a considerable amount of time both in meetings and in emails with the artists in the project, we have also identified ways to train artists on the topic in the future, with many of the pain points identified in the “Feedback” section of Appendix I.

In addition, we will be able to track the performance of the published artworks in terms of their revenue by scheduling regular check-ins with the artists.

Additional work outputs

The videos produced by Dr. Dominic Smith on how to work with Mural are available here:

Building and exporting your Mural 

Image preparation for Mural 

Preparing audio 

Preparing and using video files in Mural 

From "Breathe" by Louise O'Boyle

Commissioned as part of the project

Recommendations and ideas for further development

Based on our learnings from this project, there are a number of areas we have identified as having high potential for future exploration. They include:

Energy efficient NFTs

NFT creation from Mural stories as an output: We would like to explore user-friendly ways artists can create NFTs out of their artwork based on the XRP Ledger. This may include the export of complete Mural stories or individual components.

Gallery and purchase mechanism for the completed works

Automated hosting

This could also be used as the gallery/purchase mechanism mentioned above

Mobile app for content creation

Now that Mural 2 includes a file format and mechanism for exchanging stories in progress, this could be put to use in the development of a standalone mobile app for content creation. This would save several steps for users who already create videos and images with their phones.

Mobile app for viewing content

A dedicated mobile app would build in web monetization support so that users would automatically be able to view artworks and to pay for them using Coil or other web monetization-enabled services.

App for Apple TV and other streaming hardware

Provides a way for individuals to view artwork on TV screens without scrolling. Also includes support for Coil.

Themes for frontend designs

We would like to create several themes for individual use cases, such as: Artists seeking to make a portfolio of documentation; curators making documentation of gallery shows; museums showing items that are in their archive but not available for public display due to space constraints; specialized displays for in-gallery TVs

Citation system

For handling academic texts and for handling artists’ licenses of their work

From "Transforming discarded objects" by Colin Frank

Commissioned as part of the project

Conclusion

The following team worked with Mural on “Web monetization in the arts:”

- Douglas Arellanes, project manager

- Edouard Richard, developer

- Naomi Aro, developer

- Pete Haughie, developer

- Loic Nogues, developer

- Kiona Hagen Niehaus, UX designer

- Dr. Dominic Smith, curator and community manager

Mural is incredibly grateful to Grant for the Web for its support of the “Web monetization in the arts” project. The support has meant a major improvement to the Mural software and its capabilities, and we are happy that the software is available to the public as free and open source under the Affero General Public License.

We would be happy to present our work and share our findings with the web monetization community, and hope that there are ways to continue working on web monetization with the community, Grant for the Web, Coil and Ripple in the near future.

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Appendix I: Community outreach and artworks

Community outreach was led by Dr. Dominic Smith, a curator and artist based outside of Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Mural 2 project manager Douglas Arellanes assisted in training and technical support, as well as in the selection of artists for commissions.

Artists Meetings

A total of 12 artist meetings took place during the project. When confirming the commissions the curator met with each individual artist to discuss their work and the project timelines.

This was followed by two group meetings, one to introduce the project and introduce the artists to one another. The artists then explained their practice and what they intended to make on the Mural platform. This was to ensure the artists understood the platform and the project goals that included the use of web monetization as part of the work.

This was followed by one-on-one meetings to support the artists in setting up an account on Uphold so that we could add the ILP payment pointer information to their artwork. There was a second round of individual meetings with each artist to check in and discuss progress. Finally, there were 2 individual meetings with artists who needed further support setting up their wallets.

Feedback

The artists initially made their stories using an older version of Mural (the 0.4 version), so a number of the pain points they raised around usability were already addressed in Mural 2. These included the inability to save and share a Mural story in progress, the complicated process of creating the landing page image and the need to have to create three versions of each image for desktop, tablet and phone. 

Other points that were raised:

Colin Frank, an artist working with sound, discussed the need for smoother audio transitions and more overall control over audio. The conversation led to the idea of having an additional audio layer to allow for audio to overlap multiple items in a Mural story. 

The main pain points came around the setting up of the artists’ Uphold accounts and gaining a sense of trust in the use of alternative economies and cryptocurrencies. 

It took a fair amount of effort to explain how to set up the artists’ payment pointers, which required us to show them how to set up an Uphold account, especially how to move money into and out of XRP. It was effective to have the artists send 10 British pounds to their XRP account to open it, and then to reimburse them directly in XRP on Uphold. 

The other question that most artists asked was around continued use of Mural. They all expressed a desire to continue using it, but wanted to know how to ‘get their work’ online once it is made. This is something that should perhaps be addressed in the next iteration of Mural, i.e. some sort of built-in hosting system for their stories. Or perhaps at this point a simple guide would help.

Because most artists will probably not gather hundreds of thousands of users, the artists also asked about ways to set the streaming rate differently, as an artwork has a different value than a meme. We explained that the rate for streaming is set by Coil, but it may be something for Coil to explore - setting individualized rates.

At the start of the project, Dr. Smith created a series of instructional videos on how to work with Mural (building and exporting your Mural, image preparation for Mural, preparing audio, preparing and using video files in Mural). The group found the online walkthrough videos very helpful and we will consider doing a similar set of videos for Mural 2.

In general there had been a bit of trepidation about using Mural, followed by all participants saying how simple it was once they actually got started. We suspect this is often the case with learning any new software, and the improved user interface in Mural 2 should also help users overcome this. 

Selection process

The selection process for the small artist commissions followed fairly standard conventions. There was one early commission sought from a recognised and experienced professional in the field to act as lead artist. Melanie King, a recognised expert in her field, was selected for this role. She was very helpful in early discussions raising queries about sustainability and the environmental impact of the technologies we were using.

Climate change plays a large role in Melanie King’s work. At the start of conversations with her, she asked about energy usage in XRP-based transactions, as it was a potential dealbreaker for her. She was under the impression that all cryptocurrencies had the same massive energy usage as Bitcoin and Ethereum. After researching the topic and reaching out to the Grant for the Web team, we pointed her to an article on the Coil about their environmental practices. Melanie’s concerns were assuaged.

This then led to an open callout for proposals from other artists placed on curatorspace.com, a UK-based website that aggregates funding opportunities and provides project management services. Four artists were selected from around 40 proposals. Selection criteria was based around:

- Strength of idea

- Suitability for the Mural 2 platform

- Evidence of the artists’ ability to produce the work they proposed

The works were judged and selected by the curator, Mural project manager and the lead artist. 

Notes on the work that was made

Each artist took a unique approach to their work. As happens with creative processes, there was a degree of variation from their original proposals. This happens as artists get fully acquainted with a new tool and discover new possibilities. Ideas change as they are ruminated on and research is undertaken. But we are happy with the outcomes of each piece. They all tested the platform in multiple ways, enabling us to ensure that it is fit for purpose in a range of creative circumstances.

The ideas and images are rich, engaging, diverse in choice of medium and subject matter and they pull the viewer into the artist’s vision. They are accessible enough to attract a wide audience whilst retaining a critical edge that establishes them as genuine works of art. The artworks will be an invaluable aid to promoting Mural 2 and further discussions around Coil and the goal to develop an inclusive standard for monetizing artwork on the web. 

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