Imgur launches an ad-free subscription service, powered by micropayments

Technology

Imgur is launching a subscription service that offers an ad-free browsing experience and new community features, like profile flair and the ability to mute tags across the site. The subscription service, called Emerald, quietly launched on the web in May, and today, it’s being more publicly announced as it comes to Imgur’s Android app. The service will eventually launch on iOS, too.

Emerald costs $5 per month, but it’s not offered through Imgur itself. Instead, Imgur has partnered with a company called Coil, which is the latest group trying to make micropayments work across the web. Coil has the same general structure as other micropayments services — you pay a monthly sum, and then Coil pays that money out to the various companies and creators whose work you’ve been reading and watching. A number of companies have tried this in the past and struggled to catch on.

What makes Coil different is the fact that it’s based on an open protocol. Coil is built on a technology called Interledger — “It’s not a blockchain,” said Coil CEO Stefan Thomas — that anyone can tap into to send and receive small payments. So even though Emerald is launching in partnership with Coil, you could theoretically sign up through a Coil competitor (if there were one, which there’s not) and get access to the very same service. The hope is that, by making sure no one company is the middle of all those payments, the system will be a lot more likely to grow and have bigger names join in.

Signing up for a Coil subscription will unlock benefits on a number of different services. On Imgur, you get access to Emerald, which will let you post images in comments, use member-only avatars, and block tags for images you don’t want to see across the site. “Some people want to say, ‘I don’t like kittens,’” said Imgur co-founder and community VP Sarah Schaaf. “And those people are crazy, but they could mute kittens.”

But the subscription will also give you access to features elsewhere. Coil has signed up a collective of satire sites — including Reductress and The Hard Times — that offer exclusive content and ad-free browsing to members. The subscription will also let you watch paywalled videos on Cinnamon, a retro-styled YouTube competitor. And it’ll pay out to Twitch streamers with a bot that sends the site’s virtual currency as you watch.

That means Imgur won’t get all of a $5 subscription each month, unless the only Coil-supporting service a member uses is Imgur. (Coil isn’t currently taking a cut.) For both companies, the goal is to grow the network so that the overall pool of payments is larger, earning them more money but also building out an alternative to advertising that can be used to support creators across the web.

“The internet has become a breeding ground for negativity, and the prevailing business models reward such bad behavior,” said Imgur CEO Alan Schaaf. That includes mining and selling personal data and sensational headlines that drive clicks, Schaaf said. “The more users sign up for Coil, the less other sites have to sign up for these traps.”

Coil is launching its service slowly. The goal is to build out the network — something Coil is doing in part by making investments in companies it would like to sign up; Coil invested $20 million in Imgur last year. The company has also been reaching out to individual creators and developers.

“There’s sort of, at this point, almost an innate enthusiasm that comes from learning that there’s actually an alternative or another way to generate revenue on the internet,” said Tiffany Fox, Coil’s chief marketing officer. “I don’t think that there’s a lot of love for advertising these days.”