Public domain image by Irene Dávila

Writer’s Dilemma: Do I Need a Paywall? Or Can I Trust the Gift Economy?

The idealist in me says, “Keep publishing for free and ask people to pay what they can.” 
The pragmatist says, “It’s time to put some content behind a paywall.”

Can you help me decide which way to go?

To give you all the background for this decision, I’m going to share my history of writing on the web, why I believe in free publishing, why I feel an urgent need to produce a lot more right now, and my financial situation.

Then there’s a survey at the end where you can help me decide whether I should embrace the gift economy and trust that people will support me, or be a serious grown up and lock up my content behind a paywall.

So, some background…

I’ve been writing on the web since 2003.

At first I was just journalling in public. My narcissistic teenaged ramblings weren’t very useful to the world, but they helped me to find my voice.

After a few years, I started writing stuff that other people really valued.

In 2010 I started designing electronic audio machines and publishing all the plans online so people could follow along with my learning journey. Everything I know, I learned from other people, so it seemed logical to contribute back.

The Sinister Tone Generator: one of my open source audio machines

In 2012, my friends and I started Loomio. We’re a worker co-operative that builds software for small scale digital democracy. We organise without a command-and-control hierarchy. People are interested in the tool and interested in how we run the co-op, so I kept publishing and the audience kept growing.

Thousands of people have read my story about how we designed care into our organisational structure. Tens of thousands have read my sermon about small-scale democracy. I’m a major contributor to the Enspiral and Loomio Handbooks, read by more than a hundred thousand people who want to know how we manage without hierarchy.

As I’ve grown up, my online writing has matured from journalling into something more like journalism: this year I’ve documented the work of border activists in Arizona, discussed digital democracy with the Mayor of Seoul, and reported from conferences that I wish more people could attend.

A border patrol checkpoint… 50 miles north of the US-Mexico border.

Everything I’ve written since 2003 has been published online for free.

These days, I even go the extra step of putting it all in the public domain using the Creative Commons Zero license: anyone can do anything they like with my words, no rights reserved.

Free publishing is one way for me to practice my values.

⚠️ Warning — ideological detour ahead…
I blame “private property” for a lot of the injustice in the world. When colonists arrived in Aotearoa and turned it into New Zealand, private property was one of their main weapons. By carving a continuous landscape into discrete blocks, they didn’t just exclude people from their ancestral homes, they spread a toxic mental virus too. They demolished the pre-European governance practices that respect all inhabitants of an ecosystem: past, present and future. They replaced the complexity of interdependence with the suicidal simplicity of private property: the absurd myth that we can survive without neighbours.

That’s a clumsy way for my brain to try to articulate something my heart feels with perfect clarity. Ideas are social creatures. Information wants to be free. You can’t steal a gift. We create the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible by living there today. Life is self-organised abundance. Economics is controlled scarcity.

My brain says “publish for free.” 
My heart says “publish for free!” 
My wallet says “dude, what are you doing?”

I think writing is the best service I can offer the world right now.

I spent April and May touring through the US with my love- and work-partner Nati Lombardo. I felt I had to go visit the US because frankly I’m worried about World War III erupting over there. The intention of the trip was to meet with progressive citizens, to see if our decision-making software or our non-hierarchical management structures could help with their organising.

Nearly everyone we met agreed that progressive action should be organised in a participatory way. But almost nobody had sustained experience with a thriving, decentralised, dynamic, non-hierarchical team. There seems to be a set of common failure patterns that make ongoing collaboration really hard.

Everywhere we visited, we heard familiar complaints:

  • How can we be inclusive without spending all our time in meetings?
  • How do we deal with power imbalances?
  • How do we collaborate when we’ve all been indoctrinated to dominate and compete?

On our last day in the country, I met with techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. I highly recommend reading her book Twitter And Tear Gas to understand what she calls the ‘tactical freeze’, which sees progressive people repeating the same actions over and over, while neo-authoritarians innovate and gain ground on many fronts. She warned that US progressive movements will not shift the balance of power without a major upgrade in their decision-making infrastructure. This is urgent.

Zeynep’s warning reinforced the conclusion that Nati and I had come to after touring 15 cities: while our workshops helped people overcome some of their collaboration challenges, the need is far bigger than two people can ever satisfy.

So now we’re building an online training course: a scalable way to share what we’ve learned about decentralised organising. We’re inviting a community of practitioners to learn together how to manage without hierarchy, whether they’re in collectives, co-ops, or organisations.

A snapshot of our work-in-progress on Trello

In the screenshot above, you can see our planning board, which currently has 13 videos. Each video covers a “pattern” for decentralised organising: a challenge that I’ve observed many collaborative groups face, paired up with some practical responses that help these groups get unstuck. In addition to the videos, we’ll have exercises, resources, and a space for people to support each other to solve their real issues.

Here’s a short excerpt from today’s filming. The pattern is Distribute Care Labour Fairly:

So how are we going to pay for it?

We’re scripting, filming, editing, illustrating… this is weeks and weeks of work. So naturally we need to charge for it, right?

I mean, I need the money. As of this month, I’ve stopped taking any wages from Loomio. When I forecast my budget for the rest of the year, the only income I can count on comes from the training workshops Nati and I are offering, plus a trickle of voluntary contributions on my Patreon page 😍.

Until yesterday, we were planning to do the obvious thing and charge people a flat fee to take the course. I’ve been uneasy about the idea of forcing people to pay to access information, but I figured it was a necessary evil.

Then I had a conversation with fellow Enspiralite Sahana Chattopadhyay, which poured gasoline on the embers of my unease. Together we got excited about an open social learning community: a place for practitioners to learn together, and a beacon of possibility for people stuck in dysfunctional organisations. I’m sure this course will help many more people if we don’t hide it behind a paywall.

I remember Amanda Palmer saying, “Don’t make people pay. Let them.” Rather than make people pay a fee to purchase a course, could I just invite them to contribute to its sustainability?

I really don’t know if it would work. That’s why I’m asking you all. If you’re interested in the course material, or if you have an opinion about the economics, please fill in this survey and let me know what you think.

I really appreciate you helping me figure this out. 💚


p.s. there’s a juicy conversation happening about this over on Facebook. It’s a public post so you can jump in if you have something to add 👍