Patreon: teaching that internet is not the realm of free
From whuffie to real money
In the beginning was the web. In the digital world, providing access to almost anything for free was a kind of magic. Instead of buying a newspaper, I could go to UOL [a Brazilian news portal]; instead of buying books to do some research, I could access Cadê [Brazilian search engine, launched before Google], Altavista and soon after I could use the God Google; instead of paying for a phone call, you could use ICQ, or MSN, until we get to the times when we can use WhatsApp. The great thing about the internet, since the beginning, was to be cheap, so cheap what it was almost free.
The web grew and then I found out, in a far far away Campus Party Brasil [a wide internet festival], that things weren’t exactly free, but they happen in exchange for… “whuffies”. We crumbled the vision of “making money” and turned it into “create social capital”, generate reputation. The wacky “Whuffie” gave meaning to a very understandable idea for anyone who lived one week camped on a shed in Sao Paulo full of people who knew each other (or got to know right there) because of the internet: the exchange of information and the will to share knowledge existed because we felt that we could become not only better, but also better recognized.
However, unfortunately we can not really pay bills with Whuffie, a claim that Cris Dias has heard since 2009 when he wrote on the topic for the ebook “Para Entender a Internet” (“To Understand the Internet”, in a free translation to English).
THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH, NO FREE NEWSPAPER, NOR KNOWLEDGE SPONTANEOUSLY GENERATED WITHOUT EXCHANGE OF SOMETHING VALUABLE
Reputation is good, but it cannot be the only thing an initiative generates. And I hope that we will find a good solution for this. One of the still rudimentar formats of this possible future new way to generate real value to digital contents could be crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter or Catarse [a Brazilian crowdfunding tool], when used for specific projects, and Patreon, when used to “recurring services”, as a way to become a kind of virtual sponsorship.
Interestingly, this seems to me to have to do with a kind of cultural change. A few years ago I heard the expression “vote with your wallet”, which explained the way the Americans would be (supposedly) more willing to pay or donate to people and causes they really believed, or pay for services they liked a lot. I realized that maybe this idea is gradually coming to Brazil as well.
After all, I think everyone agrees that there is no free lunch, no free newspaper, or knowledge generated spontaneously without exchange of something valuable (there has to be at least some Whuffie involved), and it seems that we are gradually coming to a time where paying for what we consume is not bad, as long as the price is considered fair.
In other words, perhaps we are finally following some of the steps suggested by Kim Dotcom to stop piracy and the feeling that everything in the internet is free:
- Create quality content;
- Make it easy to acquire;
- Distribute also for people all over the planet;
- In formats that can be consumed on various devices; and finally
- With a fair price.
It has happened this way in a number of services that have created freemium models, in which you can try and pay for extra features or by removing advertising, or even services offering exclusive content — such as Spotify, Netflix and Tidal, that confirm my theory, and I’m not even mentioning the publications that adopted the paywall model during the last five years.
More recently there has been also a lot of mobile apps that are giving access to a wide variety of magazines and publications with a fixed signature quite reasonable, as is the case with Globo Mags and iba magazines [apps that give access to magazines in Brazil for a fixed subscription], for example. You get to the point that you discover the price paid per publication was kind of expensive before, but now you can have access to the same quality content at a more affordable price. However, there is still a price to be paid — this sensational content did not fall into your lap, someone needs to be paid for it to be produced and to finally reach you.
YOU HAVE TO EARN YOUR PATREONSHIP
In April 2015, after a trip that gave me many insights, I finally decided to launch Interwebz, a weekly newsletter where I curated links and content for my readers to be informed quickly. The Interwebz emerged from a strong desire to continue the work that I had learned to do in my days on the Blue Bus [my former job] and also as a weekend hobby. It’s something I’ve done for a long time (because it was my job) and I would also do it just for whuffie. However, sponsorship helps enable some minor improvements to the bottom line, as paying for premium services, having some pocket money to purchase apps for reviewing or even to make donations to projects that I believe were related to the purpose of my Interwebz .
At first, I followed the footsteps of Rodrigo Ghedin, a friend who had also launched his own newsletter, with exclusive access for subscribers. Ghedin’s newsletter, called Manual do Usuário, is a case of a niche success — it now has about 130 subscribers who contribute with several values, and they help guarantee him a monthly incentive in dollars and a very engaged and interested community, really keen to listen (or read) what he has to say.
THERE IS NO USE IN HAVING A GOOD PRODUCT IF PEOPLE DON’T KNOW YOUR PRODUCT EXISTS
However, it took me just a couple weeks to realize that there was no use in having a good product if people didn’t knew it existed. More than produce the content, it was also necessary to publicize the initiative, promote among friends and colleagues, letting people know that it existed and that it was a good idea to pay for access.
My experience is almost a microcosm, but it was with it that I understood that it really is possible to earn some money with the support of subscribers. In the first 3 or 4 months, Interwebz come to count on about 20 “patrons”, who paid varying amounts in my Patreon page to gain access to the newsletter I produced every week.
However, what I had not anticipated was the bureaucracy. In addition to the 4–6 hours I invested curating the content that would appear on the Interwebz and designing the newsletter in Mailchimp, it was still necessary to separate a few hours to keep checking who had made a signature on Patreon, check whether the person was also registered in Mailchimp’s mailing list, adding details, comparing tables, creating a spreadsheet to have everything organized … This was a a bit boring and sometimes ended up not being done at the speed that I thought was needed.
There was also the problem of the “central of payments”. Patreon tells you how much each of your patrons has invested in your project and sends you a monthly balance. In one of these monthly balance sheets, I noticed that one of my patrons was having his card declined by the system. Probably could have been a temporary block, as some banks usually do, or maybe the card had been changed or even it could be expired. At first I thought I could ask the patron about it, so he could check the payment details, but over time these episodes increased and then became too much of a boring process to ask each of them to check their payments on Patreon to keep receiving the newsletter.
It was around this time I noticed that besides the fact that about 20% of my patrons were having their payments turned away, my range was being undermined: instead of speaking to a larger audience, I was just talking to a small handful of paying subscribers, most of them friends and acquaintances, which I do not want to bother requesting payments. I decided to ask this group what they thought about expand the scope of Interwebz to anyone who wanted to sign in, even the ones that wouldn’t pay, and how they felt about keeping Patreon as an independent and volunteer support for the newsletter creation and development.
To my happiness and great surprise, 90% of patrons voted for the Interwebz to be open to the public and that was what I did. Since July 2015, I’ve gradually opened the subscription for those interested in receiving it, and in September I really pivoted Interwebz altogether, this time following in the footsteps of Maria Popova of Brain Pickings: good content made available to anyone interested, but if you want to “vote with your wallet” to keep the Interwebz running, there were options of monthly recurring donations and occasional collaborations, according to the ability of each person.
CONVENIENCE IS KEY
In a recent conversation with @Interney, he said he thought that in schools there should be classes about how to create content, this way people would understand how hard it could be and so there would also be more respect for those who create content. For him, a clear result would be that content jobs would be more valuable. I agree in part, because I believe that this way of respecting other people’s work has much more to do with an empathetic process than with experimentation. Thinking that everyone has their own challenges in their roles, no matter what they do, seem more productive to me than creating methods to make everyone “experience” a career. Especially because, mathematically, speaking, it would be very hard to make each one of the students try something from all the different careers that we have nowadays.
I, for one, do not know anything about music. However, I have great respect for those who can pick up instruments and create songs that pack the moments of my life and who are able to make me vibrate or cry just by hearing them.
The problem is that being a patron of a musician is still very hard. Recently I was at a concert to enjoy a band called “Móveis Coloniais de Acajú”, in a show that was subsidised by SESC. I paid my modest entrance and saw a sensational show with a singer who knew exactly how to engage people, who overflowed animation for nearly two hours and even allowed a couple in the audience to use the space on the show for a marriage proposal. Only good things to say.
At the end of the show, I was interested in “voting with my wallet” for them to continue doing shows like that. I ran to the shop to see if I could buy anything to “sponsor” their music …. and it took me only 15 minutes to quit. The shop, in miniature proportions, was a chaos. People looking to buy shirts, CDs (who still buys CDs ????) and everything else. I gave up. I came home thinking I would look after their online store, ‘they should definitely have one, right?’ They do, but it is virtually empty, selling mostly CDs, which is a medium that unfortunately (or fortunately?) I can’t listen at home as I do not even have a CD player in the house
I wandered through the site looking for a PayPal button. I do not need anything in return, you know? I might as well donate the value of a shirt for them for the sheer pleasure of thinking that I did my part and have contributed. I have not found a donate button anywhere and I wondered if there would be more people like me willing to click on a PayPal button to donate some amount to the band, as a reward for the good time we had in their show. I bet the couple who became engaged to the sound of the band would be more than willing to thank them this way.
IF THERE ISN’T AN OFFICIAL FORM, THERE WILL BE AN UNOFFICIAL ONE
In recent weeks, I was very interested in watching a national film that was in theaters and received amazing reviews. To my misfortune, the only sessions near my house weren’t viable for me — 2 or 4 pm on weekdays. Who can take two hours of leisure during work nowadays? Even if my job is a flexible one, this could be very rare. And lo and behold: the same sessions did not exist in theaters on weekends. The alternative was to run to São Paulo city on a Saturday or Sunday … to see a movie (!).
TODAY THERE ARE FEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR REWARDING A PRODUCTION CONVENIENTLY WITHOUT USING THE THEATHER AS AN INTERMEDIARY
Now, I make a rhetorical question: would one that grew up with the concept of “free Internet” be held by a difficulty of distribution created by the industry or would one know how to go around the ghettos of the internet to find an illegal copy?
It wouldn’t be that hard to get the movie in a snap of a finger. You could watch it from the comfort of your sofa, eating popcorn and drinking soda. That same person could have finished watching the movie amazed by its quality, script, production, happy for the subtle and yet emphatic way that a sensible issue was handled. And terribly guilty for using a path that provides ZERO incentive to those who made that spectacular content, simply because there was no easy and convenient way to obtain legal access and finance that production.
I’ve heard many cases where one seeks other ways to “compensate” for the damage caused by consuming illegal content — they are the part of the audience who is willing to find a button “DONATE FOR THIS MOVIE HERE” and giving the same R$50 -100 they would have spent in a movie theather. However, today there are few opportunities for promoting a production conveniently without using the theather as an intermediary.
Even Flynn, Walter White’s son on the series “Breaking Bad”, knows the power of giving. The donations don’t need to reach extraordinary values as Walter White’s (if you saw the series you will get this one), but they are an interesting and viable solution for those who want to collaborate on a given project, be it content, image, audio, or whatever. It is also a way to “vote with your wallet” to allow something to (continue to) happen.
“The crowdfunding is on the agenda, many people with good projects are seeking this type of funding, because it does not depend on approval of incentive laws and / or public notice,” said my friend and cultural producer Juliana Mara. She also adds that “nothing stops producers of selling products of your movie”, reinforcing my point that it would be very useful to be able to make a contribution to the film as a form of gratitude for the experience.
FROM FREEMIUM TO PATREON
We don’t have the secret formula to solve financial problems for digital media yet. Independent producers, artists, creators and the music industry are experimenting and testing to see what will work. We have seen models based on advertising, partnerships with brands, sponsorships, direct payment, freemium and now I believe we are seeing the emergence of a patronage model, where access is free and unrestricted and funding comes from those who believe or like much of what they consume.
A recent example is the application Overcast, one of the best to organize podcasts. The developer Marco Arment decided to leave the freemium model, where part of the service is offered free of charge and advanced features are locked only to those who pay for the use, to become an app backed by Patreons. Now, everyone who wants to can use all the features of the app for free, and those who like and want to be a patron can do it through the app itself.
ASKING PEOPLE TO COLLABORATE, DOING SOMETHING GOOD AND EXPECTING SOMETHING BEYOND RECOGNITION IN RETURN IS ACTUALLY AN ART
“Version 1.0 of Overcast locked the coolest features behind a payment via app. Only 20% of users paid and had access to the ‘pro’ version. So 80% of my clients were using a lower quality application. The limited version was not the version of Overcast I used and it wasn’t the best experience of Overcast. It certainly was not my best work. In version 2.0, I changed it to unlock everything for everybody, and let the free app. I’d rather have you using the free app than not using it at all, and I want everyone to experience a good version of Overcast,” explains Marco Arment, who in the week that I write this text, won over 350 new patrons.
In Brazil, other initiatives work on the same model as is the case with some podcast from the B9 family, such as Mamilos and Anticast, and the website Lugar de Mulher. They now collect USD 600–1000, which facilitates these projects, making it possible for them to keep on going and helping them finance the cool ideas of the editors.
Asking people to collaborate, doing something good and still expect something beyond recognition in return is really an art, as Amanda Palmer has said for some time in this beautiful TED below.
And it’s you, who use your wallet to bet on an idea, to support a project, it’s you that enable these new things, these amazing projects, all this learning, these improvements and new experiences. It was with this kind of support that my Patreons provided me: they allowed me to try new things, to discover a tool, a new language, a new way to do what I did. I hope that all my Patreons can understand this article as the look of Amanda’s bride statue: a deep and affectionate way of saying thank you.
See you soon, and thanks for all the fish!