A Look at the Patreon Model

The fact nobody supposedly makes a living on Patreon has never been an issue to me. It is a supplementary form of income that allows artists, cosplayers, writers, podcasters, and more, to put their work behind a paywall or to receive donations from fans. Unlike how Patreon advertises itself, it is not the ideal model for creators to survive off of freelancing. Still, it serves its purpose and enables creators with a platform to have a little bit of extra money each month. The problem that I’m seeing more and more of is the gigantic gap between Patreon’s profits and priorities versus that of the Patreon artists.

In Keith Parkin’s Medium article in 2017, he asked, “Is Patreon a Scam?” In the article, Parkins highlights the platform’s controversy where it was proposed that patrons pay an extra 0.37 cents per pledge, thus hurting less popular creators who rely on their accumulation of 1 USD subscriptions. In the quoted twitter thread, Julie Dillon argued that even those few extra dollars a month can be life changing, and that it hurts to have the platform dismiss this. Of course, the changes were rolled back and Patreon apologized, but the change ultimately revealed the core philosophy and priority behind the platform. The change would have been devastating for small creators (who make up the majority of Patreon), somewhat profitable for larger creators, and incredibly profitable for Patreon. Twitter user @Burrito_Tim calculated that with his pledges, the platform would receive 118% more after the change. Again, even though this new policy was rectified, Patreon is in a position to decide that the demands of investors and their own pursuit of profit outweighs the bad PR of small creators’ outcries. After all, according to Patreon, they only value the “truly life-changing creators.”

In 2017, Patreon received around 60 million in investment capital from Thrive Capital after already having received 30 million from them in 2016, and 17 million in 2014. According to Dan Olsen, Patreon has only actually earned 55 million in revenue since 2013, which makes it highly unprofitable expense right now for those who have invested in it, thus placing further pressure on the platform to generate revenue streams that serve neither the consumer nor the creators.

After the Patreon CEO’s recent announcement that the platform’s current model is “unsustainable,” twitter user Dan Olsen predicts, “series of ill-advised feature rollouts, like they’ll probably go gonzo and build a livestreaming platform or pivot to Fortnite or buy Teespring or something equally confusing, with a slow degradation of the core user experience. Like you’ll sign in and there’ll be six popups asking if you’ve tried Patreon Mega and extolling how it can help you mega-engage with your audience, while you’re just like “can I have a commission button so people can make one-time payments?” and they’re like “no.” Unfortunately, the increasing demand for Patreon to focus only on trying to draw more Hank Green-type clients and profit off of them means the site is often neglecting its primary user base.

There will also likely be a big push to find ways to further monetize creators and have them pay for a better experience. So what is the solution then? I definitely think there needs to be a cooperative platform version made for and by creators. The cooperative version ideally would respect both the small tier and top tier creators, have more payment options that would allow for grouping together as channels and one-time commission payments, and it would have a model that does not overcharge for payment transfer fees. It would serve the creators, rather than treating them like serfs. Until then, creators using Patreon at the mercy of a platform that is at the mercy of venture capitalists. We need more platforms for creators that will put proportionally put money into the hands of workers rather than the pockets of corporations that are looking to just expand the value of the platform so they can sell it for a profit. When the latter happens, the “target audience” of the platform becomes its venture capitalist investors, and what follows is censorship, and a website that ultimately does not prioritize its users.

Citations:

https://twitter.com/FoldableHuman/status/1092870599985123329

https://theoutline.com/post/2571/no-one-makes-a-living-on-patreon?zd=1&zi=pmnmzelf

https://medium.com/dark-mountain/is-patreon-a-scam-a9d0e38bd69e

So Much Depends/ Upon/ So Many/ Business Models

In any ecosystem, heterogeneity is a healthy thing. We love flowers and they’re beautiful, but if Vancouver *only* had flowers—no trees, no grasses, no vines or bushes, the ecosystem would collapse. Likewise, if we only had, say, Maple trees and violets and no other trees or flowers, we would have an impoverished ecosystem because only a select few other plants and limited animals would be able to survive here.

The same is true of any market. The danger of any business model—Patreon, Kickstarter, or ad-generated revenue—becoming dominant is that each of these models allows for a certain type of content to survive. Patreon works ideally for artists who have grown a platform elsewhere and have an ongoing artistic practice that would exist with or without patrons—that is, it works best when the income earned is supplemental as opposed to substantial. Of course some people do survive off of their Patreon income, but as we’ve seen, that’s an incredibly small percentage of people using the platform, and I think putting this expectation on the platform is unreasonable.

Kickstarter, on the other hand, works best when it’s enabling a project to move forward. As opposed to Patreon, which has little-to-no community or tools for discovery, it is possible to find projects on Kickstarter without knowing *exactly* who—or what—you’re looking for. For this reason, having a following is definitely beneficial but not absolutely necessary in the same way it is with Patreon. Where Kickstarter (and other crowdfunding) platforms excel is actually in building awareness and support for projects—monetary and otherwise. For this reason, it’s best suited for large, one-off projects that exist outside of an artist’s regular practice.

The existence of ad-generated revenue is also essential because it allows for “free” content, or at least content that is widely and openly accessible without the user having to pay money. Because the Internet is so ubiquitous in, and in many ways, essential to modern life, it’s important that there are services, communities, and content that are accessible without a fee. This is, of course, outside of the conversation about privacy and the politics of collecting information in lieu of a fee, which isn’t necessarily an ideal substitute for a fee. That being said, however, while I use Facebook (for communicating with fellow cohort members and for finding out about/RSVPing to events,) I’m not sure that I would pay for it. Personally, I’m okay with the exchange of some online privacy for a service that I feel is useful but not absolutely essential.

Part of what makes the Internet as great and useful (and at times scary) is that it allows for so many different types of content and creators to flourish. As with almost anything, however, one size does not fit all, and too much of a good thing is not a good thing. In my opinion, the Internet benefits from creators with an ongoing artistic practice, creators with big ambitious ideas, and free services, and for all of these to survive, there needs to be a variety different business/funding models to properly support them.

Something’s Gotta Give: The Perils of Dominant Business Models in Online Environments

The readings this week focused on two different business models: traditional online advertising and the modified, modern patronage model made popular through the platform Patreon. In this post, I focus on the ad readings, whose general consensus seems to be that the current advertising system is broken—people don’t like online ads (based on views and/or clicks), so AdBlock Plus is extorting publishers and content creators like some kind of digital mafia boss, with those who rely on ad revenue helpless to stop it. This makes actually making any money very difficult, especially when we tend to pass on the responsibility of dealing with the current broken advertising model, and then use the excuse of “neutral” platforms, software and extensions to explain why it is not our job to fix them/why they cannot be fixed. Of course, no platform, software, or extension is neutral. At some point in the process, a biased human being is on the other side of the screen making very biased human decisions about how things are designed, and how they operate. If we want to fix the system, we shouldn’t “[…] build systems that let us pass the buck to someone else, in exchange for passing them a few bucks”; we should demand and take responsibility for the things that affect us. Or, at least, that’s Anil Dash’s argument.

I think this is easier said than done.

The problem with a single business model becoming dominant in an online environment, and in fact in any environment, is that no one model is infallible. Being completely reliant on a single revenue stream makes you vulnerable should that stream dry up. Furthermore, when a business model becomes dominant, it limits the incentive for business owners to create or build new models or go looking for other revenue streams—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! This lack of creativity and stagnancy makes the model vulnerable as the market evolves, until everyone is in crisis because, say, traditional online advertising no longer works as effectively (if at all) in a digital environment. This “panic mode” either forces creativity and an evolution of the model, or demands its replacement with something more sustainable—and the cycle continues. This loop can be seen in the evolution of TV and radio advertising: forced to compete with Netflix and rapidly changing social climate, TV advertisers have been forced to become clever in their ads.

With the rise of ad blockers, it looks like we’ll soon be seeing the same shift in online advertising—though if advertising will change, or if business models will shift to remove it from their revenue streams completely still remains to be seen. Either way, something’s gotta give.

The Middleman: Medium vs. Platform Cooperativism

Medium describes itself on their about page as, “A customizable reading experience, made just for you.” They are selling themselves explicitly as a platform that is created with the reader at heart, focusing more on good quality content for users, rather than trying to please advertisers. To experience unlimited content, free from all ads and pop-ups, readers need to become members for $5/month or $50/year. If you’re one of the readers who signs up for Medium because you want to support good journalism, your money isn’t actually going directly to the journalists and writers, Medium also takes a cut. The idea of the ‘middleman’ makes us uncomfortable but it isn’t inherently wrong. Medium is simply providing a service that gives people a place to publish and find and audience. I believe that the success of Medium can be used as an outline for a platform co-op that would leave the revenue in the hands of the creators. In order to discuss this alternative business model I will first review why the subscription model is working, then how it could be transferable to a platform co-op model of publishing.

The Medium model has become very successful, proving that people are willing to pay for content that they value, despite the fact that stats suggest many Canadians aren’t willing to pay for news online. People will pay for quality content that they know will be engaging, credible, easy to find, or from a source whose personality they enjoy. This is great news considering the American Press Institute stated in 2017 that, “The future of journalism will increasingly depend on consumers paying for the news directly, as content distributors like Facebook and Google take up the lion’s share of digital advertising dollars.” So why is it hard to get some people on board?

There are many reasons why people are not interested in paying a subscription fee for journalism. Arguments include: they can find the same content for free elsewhere, they can’t justify the purchase given the number of other subscriptions they are already paying for, they can’t afford it, they don’t trust the source, and the list could go on. These reasons are justified but is there another model that has the potential to convert some of these nay-sayers? In comes platform co-op. People are more willing to pay for a publisher’s content when they are aligned with the values and mission of that organization. With discussions rising about Facebook and Google running the advertising game, people are become wary of giving their money to monopolizing giants, but what about a platform that they can own, contribute to the success of and really see how their money is being used? Platform coopertivism may prove to be a successful model for a new subscription\-based publisher to rise up.

Mai Sutton on Sharable defines a platform co-op as, “a digital platform — a website or mobile app that is designed to provide a service or sell a product — that is collectively owned and governed by the people who depend on and participate in it.” Since many of the readers who are paying for subscriptions are interested in supporting the ideas that they are reading about, there may be enough interest to create a platform that is owned and operated by a co-op interested in keeping the revenue within their community, ensuring that writers and journalists are paid equitably for the work they put in, without a middle man taking a cut.

As a publishing student, I see so much benefit in becoming a member of a platform like Medium. The audience, convenience and support is there, but it is a bit unsettling that Medium is walking away with a higher paycheque than the journalists I would be trying to. I believe that companies deserve to take a cut for the services they offer, but this capitalist structure is not the only way of doing business. I don’t think it would be easy to get right, but a platform co-op publisher would be an interesting model to see in action, and one that I could definitely get behind!

Thoughts on the Medium Model

The with growing dominance of adblock (which has decimated digital ad revenues), it is worth speculating how publishers can adapt by creating models that enable website traffic and monetization without alienating readers. Medium’s recent model changes put into play an interesting structure: a membership model that, for 5 dollars a month, enablers readers to access “the best” of Medium’s content. Before deliberating on how publishing can apply such a model, I want to first look at what is and is not working with the system.

Continue reading “Thoughts on the Medium Model”

Subscription Model in Publishing: Not Like Netflix/Spotify

This week, we talked about the Medium’s subscription model during the class. In The rationalization of publishing, Medium’s founder Evan Williams believed that since publishing could not be supported by advertisements alone currently, a subscription model will be the best solution. He compared this model to Netflix/Spotify and argued that:

  1. People who care about understanding themselves and the world will pay for information
  2. People who care about reading will pay for texts as they pay for videos and audios
  3. People will pay for high-quality content rather than reading free but poor-quality content online

I agreed with his arguments. However, I do not think that TV/music is an appropriate analogy for publishing. In my opinion, reading has a lot of differences from watching TV or listening to music. Therefore, publishers should be careful when applying the subscription model.

First, the market for publishers tends to be smaller than TV or music producers. There are fewer people who read than who watch TV or listen to music.

According to the Pew Research, “Overall, Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read four books in the past 12 months”. Let us assume they spend 10 hours on each book (it is hard to assume the average because depending on the genre and page number, it will take a different length of time to finish a book), then an average American spends about 120 hours on reading in a year and a typical American only spends 40 hours on reading in a year.

Let us look at the data for Netflix. By the end of 2017, Netflix had 117.58 million subscribers. It also claimed that in average, its users watched 140 million hours of content on a day. According to the numbers, the averages time for one subscriber to spend on Netflix on one day is a little over 50 minutes.

Then what about the time that people spend on digital reading?

In 2017, Medium only had 60 million monthly readers (not exactly subscribers) and in total, these users spent 4.5 million hours reading on Medium in per month. This means that each reader only spends 4.5 mins on Medium per month.

A big difference, huh?

The subscription model works for Netflix or Spotify because a huge number of consumers watches TV or listens to music now. For a keen online reader, paying a subscription fee to get the unlimited access to good quality articles is a great deal but how many keen online readers are there? For people who only read four books a year, unlimited access to books is not very appealing. However, they might be one of the one-time book buyers out there in the market which the subscription model does not work for.

Another significant difference between reading and the other two media is that there are better alternatives for readers rather than subscribing to a certain platform. If I quit Netflix or Amazon Prime today, I do not know where to find a better solution. I could go to a movie theatre which only provides me with a few options, or I could pay for a cable which would be very troublesome and expensive to get considering I don’t even own a nice TV now. Without the subscription model, I can still read a printed book, an ebook or listen to an audiobook, either bought by myself or borrowed from libraries or friends.

I am not saying that subscription model would not work for publishers. Except Medium, there are also subscription services for Ebooks such as Kindle Unlimited, Oyster or Scribd. In the article Subscription Services for E-Books, the author pointed out that the sales of physical books are “fairly stable” and he concluded that “the reading public doesn’t get subscription e-book services — or at least doesn’t get them yet”. However, I think the readers did not get the subscription model because the physical books (or the experience of reading a physical book) are still in need.

Overall, I think the subscription model will work for publishers, but only to a certain extent. In the publishing world, the subscription model will not be as dominant as it in other fields such as TV or music.

Platform Coöperatives and Online Publishing, Together at Last

Within the service sector of the economy, the emerging  system of ‘platform capitalism’ relies on “self-employed” workers using a platform (be it hardware or software) that is owned by a third party entity to facilitate their service delivery . This results in a situation wherein labour is sold directly to the consumer rather than an employer, using the platform as a proxy  to establish the guise of self-employment. The result is that there is no real change to the fundamental relationship between labour and capital, yet many of the standard operating costs are shifted to the employee, who also forgoes the benefits and protections that centuries of class struggle has carved out for the traditional wage labourer. Continue reading “Platform Coöperatives and Online Publishing, Together at Last”

Subscriptions and Ads… not such a bad thing

I’ve never really felt compelled to subscribe to any sort of magazine, newspaper or online community. Partly because of there hasn’t been anything I’ve been interested in enough to do so and I guess the idea of having to pay for content that I could probably find a way to get for free seemed silly. This weeks class and reading made me reflect on how is this different from my subscription to Netflix, Spotify, or Adobe. A subscription to something like Medium is far less expensive than one of these other things I currently subscribe to. I would say perceived value has a lot to do with the subscription choices I’ve made. With all 3 of my current subscriptions, it allows for multiple users which I split with a friend or family member, thus my perceived value of these things increases.

With that said, I do think that a subscription model is preferable as the end user. Although I do understand that not all types of business cannot survive with just one type of revenue model. Having taken up a production/management position for my job in conjunction with this program has certainly given me an understanding and appreciation of how business function. I would say that I used to be indifferent to ads (especially on website). I have become more aware recently how advertisements would keep popping up for sites and products that I’ve visited. While, it’s a little creepy, I do understand that these are the way businesses ensure that products are visible making increasing the likelihood of a sell-through. On a personal note, I would be very interested how they are able to do this!

As consumers, I think it’s important to understand the purpose and role that advertising or subscriptions has for the publisher and reader. I think it’s very easy to say that ads or subscription shouldn’t exist on site or on any type of medium. At the end of the day it is the means that that select producer has chosen to be able to deliver their content. Hopefully, it’s not overkill! I also think that ads and platforms should be better aligned with each other. To me, there is nothing more off-putting than noticing a mis-aligned add.  Although as we continue to learn, small publishers and business aren’t equipped to compete with large companies, so perhaps they’re not really in a position to be selective with their ads.

To Pay or Not to Pay? Why I’ll Start Supporting Creators

Though I’ve only very recently begun to think about paying for subscriptions (the last two years or so), I can pinpoint the exact moment when my thinking began to shift: I had been complaining to my brother that one of my friends was going to charge me for art I’d asked her to make for a piece of fanfiction I was writing, and had been really upset that she hadn’t offered to do it for free. I had written her a ton of fic in the past, I’d changed my travel plans to visit her in both Germany and Italy during the semester I’d been in Europe, and I’d been shocked that she hadn’t offered to do this for free when I thought we were friends.

My little brother was not sympathetic.

He first asked why I didn’t think my friend should be compensated for her labour, then pushed further by inquiring if I didn’t want to support her in her creative endeavours. I was gobsmacked.

I had honestly never thought of paying my friends for their creative labour before. Mostly, this can be attributed to how I grew up: I was always taught that you don’t charge your friends (or you at least give them a serious discount) because you love them, and that’s just how you behave towards the people you love. Other parts can probably be explained away by the general undervaluing of the arts: even in last year’s federal budget, the Canadian government failed to recognize the precarious position of 650,000 cultural workers, and “some forms of museum funding still remain at levels lower than they were in 1972”. That’s not even considering the fact that the arts are severely underfunded in Canadian grade schools[1]… which is where you’d generally learn to appreciate and value various kinds of art.

Needless to say, my opinions shifted. Later, when I began to consider the possibility of publishing written fanworks in printed anthologies, I became aware that my attitudes towards monetizing print and visual art were also very different. Namely: I believed visual art to be inherently more expensive. I was willing to pay $20 to commission a piece of fanart, but I couldn’t conceive of compensating a fic writer for the same service. For a printed anthology, fine… but where I was willing to pay for art whether I received a print or it stayed on my screen, an online fic was something I very firmly believed was and should stay free of charge.

I think this might have had to do with a subconscious viewing of fanfiction as lesser due to its primarily female reader and authorship—but I think it also had to do with the way Western society values the visual over text. When was the last time you went into a place that displayed and showcased books? Museums don’t tend to have selections of books on display unless they’re very old, and libraries are not viewed as having nearly as much cultural capital as museums. Furthermore, if you want to have access to a special collection, you need permission to do so. Part of the reason as to why this is may also be is due to the fact that text is so very ubiquitous, both in print and online—we’re so used to seeing it that we have certain expectations when we do. I think that a lot of these expectations have to do with form: I expect to pay for a newspaper, so I’ll subscribe to a newspaper. I expect to pay for a print book, so I pay for a print book. But the idea of monetizing long-form content unaffiliated with traditional news sources, or monetizing the creation of online fanfiction, are fairly recent and had been indiscriminately free when I started using the web.

I have never paid for a subscription to any online magazine or blog. I tend to find quick fixes through switching browsers, or moving on to view free content. This is, I think, for all the reasons listed above, as well as the fact that my historical lack of disposable income has meant I’ve had to be very selective in where I allocate what few dollars I have to give. That doesn’t mean I’ll never pay, but right now, my priorities revolve around rent and groceries and allowing myself the odd night out when I spend all day reading on a screen. After I graduate and get a job? Chances are, my priorities will have shifted towards wanting to read long-form articles—ones I pay for, this time, in order to properly compensate authors for their labour.

 

[1] If the linked article doesn’t convince you due to its 2013 timestamp, take a look at this one, written specifically about Ontario and it’s practices (2018).

No Place Like Home

The readings from this week have really made me start to question what I have been accepting at face value in the past. I see the web and the way it has evolved as an inevitable process, but I haven’t stopped to truly consider the effects that technological evolutions are having on my life and the lives of those around me, despite the fact that the web is something that most of us use every day and is rapidly shaping our societies right before our eyes.

The metaphor of the web as a place we live in such as a library as described by Frank Chimero in “The Good Room” doesn’t quite resonate with. Maybe it’s because of nostalgia I’m still hanging onto about my identity as a ‘print person’. I prefer reading on paper and getting my content and entertainment face-to-face/in person, which I attribute to the inundation of digital devices that I have to use in order to stay up to date and hold a job in society. Since I’m constantly glued to a screen for work, I want to be off of a screen for play. The web is a powerful tool, but as I use it now, it isn’t a place I feel at home in. Though it’s not a strong metaphor for me, it could be a trigger for the nostalgia some of the authors express in our readings including Hossein Derakhshan in “The Web We Have to Save”. Derakhshan misses the blogging communities of the past where he didn’t need to have a huge social media following to have his content read. Blogs to him were special diverse ‘places’ where unique thoughts and ideas flourished. I wonder if he would agree with Chimero that we should be purposefully shaping the web into places where everyone feels welcome, adding that a little piece of how things were before, should be preserved as the web evolves.

Echo made an interesting point on the Elizabeth Kolbert article, “Who Owns the Internet?” about Google being a digital colonizer. I found this quite compelling, because it is in direct opposition of Chimero’s concept of a “good room” for everyone on the web. “The Weird Thing About Today’s Internet” by Alexis C. Madrigal shows us how tech giants like Google and Facebook are, “the most powerful companies the world has ever known…” and they are absolutely taking over. They are the digital versions of the ancient empires trying to overtake as much land as they can, and make all people who operate on that land, follow their rules. Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t feel at home anywhere on the internet.

As the “Google and advertising” reading from week five by Richard Graham will also demonstrate that Google is discouraging diversity in languages on the web (perhaps inadvertently but it is an incredibly important consequence to consider). When creating for the web, this is something we need to keep in mind to make sure minority or ‘less profitable’ languages are not wiped off of the digital world. To be purposeful in the design of our spaces on the web, inclusivity plays an important role.

When we are purposeful with what we do with the web, we also need to make sure that we are not just labouring and producing content for other companies to profit. Google is determining what content is worth and not worthy of promotion and whether that content is a compelling factual essay on today’s political climate or an alt-right promotional video is of no consequence to them. We’re renting land from Google for the convenience of using their multitude of services, but we aren’t careful in considering what this transaction truly means for how content is disseminated.

I appreciate the opportunities that the web affords us and the excitement of seemingly infinite possibilities for its use. I believe there is so much good that it offers including bringing communities together, teaching people new information that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, reaching out to people in rural areas, and developing products and services that truly do help humanity, but in order to ensure there isn’t some looming tech giant, twisting the underpinnings of those great services for its own needs, we need to be creating purposeful work and consider other possibilities that could allow us to operate outside the traditional capitalist focused models. This is a plug for the week four readings coming up on peer-to-peer services and platform cooperativism. Just because I believe what’s taken shape was inevitable, doesn’t mean I should accept it, and I am thankful to be learning about people who are shaking things up. We can be part of this change for the better!

Lemme Google This Real Quick

I overheard a conversation between my coworkers, a 50-year-old guy from the Bronx and a second year engineering student, the other day where they were talking about the impact of the Internet on the younger generation. The conversation went something like this:

The 50-year-old from the Bronx: “Man you kids have it so easy. You grow up thinking that what you see on the internet is true, all of it. Because that’s where you get your information these days. My kid the other day told me to just “look it up”. The truth is, the Internet only confirms that the truth is what you want to believe. You only read articles that reaffirm your viewpoint. The internet doesn’t know everything. Back in the day, we didn’t have access to the Internet, and in our hometown, the information we got was what we got.” 

The second-year engineering student: “Lemme google this real quick.” 

It reminded me of an annotation Alex made in the “How Internet gets us” that I’m still thinking deeply about. She shares that “the internet doesn’t know everything, though, and it’s that kind of thinking that gets us into trouble. It’s not there to be a spouse, or a friend, or a person… it’s a receptacle of information that is both true and untrue, and it’s up to users to sift through that information and form their own opinions.” 

I still wonder if we use the web as a tool for our confirmation biases. I, too, used to believe that the world wide web was the infinite place where we could get answers to anything: what’s the name of the 50th president? How long is a flight to Japan? What does publishing mean? When we go on the web to search for answers to our curiosities, sometimes we go in wanting to information to support our underlying beliefs. Sometimes we don’t know anything at all, but the more times we see an article of information, the more we believe it is true. I wonder if it is the mere exposure effect that helps circulate our ideas of what the truth is. Gillian Fournier in “Psych Central” writes that the mere exposure effect is a “psychological phenomenon whereby people feel a preference for people or things simply because they are familiar.” If People Magazine, US Weekly, and Meghan Markle’s dad, and Meghan Markle’s dog shares that she hates Kate Middleton, then somehow somewhere the idea must be true right? 

We familiarize ourselves with the web, to a point where it feels a place we belong to. But I’m starting to believe that the web is not only one specific place, like a library. The web doesn’t know everything; so can it be one particular place? Does the web know the answer to what the web is? Maybe on a literal dictionary definition level, but from webpage to webpage, the web knows no more than us all. The web then feels more like little places clustered together as if a digital community. Similar to the idea we learned the last lecture, the internet was built to decentralize conglomerates of information so information can be boundlessly communicated everywhere. Can the web be the same? 

While reflecting the role of the web and the Internet on our daily lives, I couldn’t help but feel a little afraid. We have become so reliant on using the web to find answers to any of our questions. The web should not become our only lives, consuming us as a whole. The web is a place for us to create. We should hold the authority to choose the impact the web has on our lives. We can have offline and online conversations to make well-informed decisions on what truth is.

To continue my nostalgia in midst of these anxieties, I’ll do another mini digital detox by going to bed early and dreaming of a life without the web. Little did I know the nightmare is still waiting for me when I wake up. 

What in the web?

Madrigal was certainly nostalgic about the idea of an open web, which is a concept I realized this week doesn’t really exist anymore. I would definitely agree that hyperlinking is generally an after thought for most of us. As a reader, I tend to gloss over it. I personally get distracted when I see a hyperlinked text and are often tempted to see what it is. Although an interesting place where hyperlinking seems to be very much a live is in scholarly journals. While writing this I recalled how a layout editor had pointed out to me that a number of links did not work, which at that time I didn’t realize that it was an issue, but I proceeded to find an updated one anyway. Ironically enough as someone who had read numerous journal articles in my undergrad, I did not realize that these hyperlinks work. Had I known that, I probably would have come to appreciate how helpful it is at linking ideas together.

It is really interesting to learn their views on how the internet was and their outlook on it now. I guess growing up with technology I do have an expectation of the internet being there. I would probably say I’ve engaged with most parts of the web as we know it now being a member of a number of online platform and owner things Kottke attributes to being the reason the open web didn’t stand a better chance. I don’t know that I’ve been deeply entrenched it in. I feel like I’m still at a point where I could disengage with it, if we collectively didn’t  rely on it so much. Maybe this has to do with the fact that I’ve never really found a place in the web that had served as a “good room” no single platform has really held my interest long enough to continue being an active participant in it. Take Instagram for example, since I got it in 2013 I’ve maybe posted less than 75-100 times (I have deleted a couple of post since then). I have found that my usage on it and other social media platform have decreased in the last couple of years. I do see the point Chimero was making about “technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live.” As  the web has allowed for the creation and curation of different types of website to exist and what to engage in.

I Can’t Believe this Digital Feudalism is Free

The metaphor that resonated the most with me this week was Alex Singh’s analogy of the internet transforming over the span of 25 years from nomadic culture to a “mostly agrarian one.” An agrarian society involves the cultivation of the land. Singh notes the transition from HTML-only sites to CSS and JS, citing it as a move that shifted the power from the masses to the privileged and elite few. Initially, web users used to navigate from link to link, and site to site discovering new content. In this sense, the web used to be boundless. In utilizing medieval terminology for the analogy, Singh equates the emerging elite class with the “literate Priesthood,” arguing that the few at the top of the hierarchy can build, interface, and moderate the web, but the vast majority of users are “peasants” whose labour is exploited by the lords of the land, and whose convenience comes at the cost of their freedom.

 

Countless times on twitter and Facebook I have encountered posts where people remarked “I can’t believe this website is free.” It is possible some users mean it in an ironic way, but the reality is that most major platforms are not transparent about how they monetize their platform and what we, the lowly peasants, are sacrificing without our knowledge. The analogy makes me think deeper of how platform creators regard their own user-base and where the value of that platform is really generated from. Dragging Tumblr into the conversation once more, I cannot help but compare it to platforms like Youtube. I once read a post where users complained that Tumblr was the worst platform to invest one’s time into – unlike Youtube, where users can make a living off subscriptions, or Instagram where users can get sponsorships and leverage their popularity, Tumblr offers no monetary reward to its producers.

The platform is monetized through ads, but none of those funds are circulated to its content creators. Another Tumblr user complained that her posts had been screenshotted and shared on other platforms, including Buzzfeed, with listicle writers making a profit off of the free labour she has been providing for years. Tumblr’s userbase is becoming increasingly aware of their exploited labour while platform owner Yahoo becomes increasingly aware of how unprofitable it is to be the feudal lord or king of Tumblr. Yahoo’s likely solution? Abandon the land altogether or poison it until the peasants grow dissatisfied enough to migrate to the land of another lord.

For Tumblr, the greatest resource to mine is attention. But Facebook and Twitter have thrived at monetizing not only attention, but also data. We users, the peasants (or serfs), are creating videos, art, stories, and all while surrendering data to our lords (platforms) who are siphoning that data and monetizing it. As Zach Scott and Singh point out, this process is neither fully consensual nor voluntary. The “give me all your data so that I can sell it” part is usually buried in fine print. Any time people start mass migrating to a new platform, or a platform changes its rules and regulations (whether discreetly or publicly), there are usually a small group of users who take the time to thoroughly read through the policies before vocally raising flags about clauses and terms that the vast majority of us would have never noticed. In 2018, Tumblr released a safe mode that by default set every user account to hide any potential adult content. It was users who brought this new feature to light and who shared information on how to disable it. Another example is Snapchat, an app that surprised users by adding a feature that automatically tracks users’ locations and display them on a map. This, too, can be disabled, but the fact it is the default setting makes it ethically questionable. A user’s freedom to make choices about their privacy or online experience has been abused by lords who value their users only as labourers.

As Singh mentions in his tweet thread, there is also class and accessibility to consider. With websites shifting to CSS and JS, many of us do not have the skills and resources to code our own websites. It is a dilemma we discussed in class and not one that has an easy solution, especially since users have gotten used to having their digital services conveniently but dangerously centralized on a handful of platforms. And then there is algorithms. Instagram’s algorithm is a mystery and twitter has rallying against chronological feeds for years now, allowing popular posts to thrive while new posts get buried. Not only that, but our communication within the land is defined based on the restrictions of our lords – Tumblr now hates images posts, Twitter has a maximum word count, and Snapchat is near impossible to use as a chat platform.

In “I Can’t Believe this Blockchain is Free,” Michael J Casey writes:

“The challenge, then, is to design an architecture that allows the producers of data – we, the users – to become less beholden to these centralized aggregators and create a more decentralized digital economy in which we can trust each other’s data and make better personal use of it…should, in theory, result in better economic and political decisions for all.”

We have to bring the power back to the users. It is time for users to start demanding more transparency to ideally dismantle the feudalistic hierarchy by becoming less dependent on a system that exploits and polices us.

Sources:

Digital Feudalism
I Can’t Believe This Blockchain is Free
Web’s Neolithic Revolution

The Idealistic Room: Strengths and Weaknesses of Framing the Web as a Library

I think a lot of what the readings this week taught me is that there’s nostalgia for what the web used to be, owing to both its past infrastructure and its potential: What was the web going to be? What would it do? What would we make it? The web was originally a tool for the open and free (non-monetized) communication and dissemination of ideas[1], and the authors of our readings all seem to be yearning for a time when things like the Stream and rampant commercialization weren’t present in online spaces. That’s not to say all is lost, however: in his article “The Good Room”, Frank Chimero asks us to reconsider all the old, exciting questions—What was the web going to be? What would it do? What would we make it?—in a different context:

“In the last decade, technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live. If we’re setting out to change the character of technology in our lives, we’d be wise to learn from the character of places.”

Chimero’s metaphor for framing this conversation is to think of the web as a library. This is similar to Adam Gopnik’s conception of it, though instead of focusing on the beauty and openness of such a location, Gopnik describes sleeping among the stacks in a way that can be overwhelming. I really enjoy the idea of the web as a library, though I tend to imagine it as an infinitely ever-expanding room with shelves so high they can barely be seen from the ground, where knowledge and information are ripe for the taking. I like the idea of spending a large part of my life in this space, reading and interacting with people in the stacks, until I get sleepy. And so I agree with Gopnik, but Chimero’s point also resonates with me: wouldn’t it be nice if the web was designed like a library? I should note that I don’t mean all libraries, here—the one in my hometown is dark and dismal at best. I never did any work there. But I like the idea of a beautiful library; a space that serves as an open area for community engagement and is designed with the goal of making us feel inspired and relaxed. I also really like this metaphor because would allow those of us whose libraries and community centres are dark and claustrophobic the opportunity to inhabit beautiful, inspirational spaces and create/learn within them.

Still, I think we should exercise caution when framing our idea of the web this way. The web as a library is a gorgeous image, but libraries are bounded in a way that the web is not. Furthermore, the library as a space is often romanticized (whether or not the web suffers the same fate probably depends on who you talk to); it is a carefully curated collection housed in a subsidized institution—and if the idea is to create a space free of outside, imposed curation, this particular establishment might not be the best metaphor.

Even the idea of emulating how one feels in a library falls through when you think of current technology’s physical limitations. The library is a beautiful place you visit in order to read/learn/work, and the space is designed in a way that encourages groundedness and being present only insofar as it allows you to become engrossed in your work. Say I go to the VPL to read up on history, or science, or to start a fantasy novel… the ultimate goal is not to remain rooted in the space, but to become captivated by the material in front of me, and the space of the beautiful library eases that transition. Unfortunately, this translates poorly when using the web: my eastside apartment will never feel like a grand library reading room no matter how beautiful the website on my screen is—the feelings of airiness and openness can’t transfer. The harsh light of our devices is something to consider here, as well: our bodies become fatigued while looking at a screen in a way that they do not sitting in a reading room.

I think it would be fantastic to make the web a library; the idea of everyone inhabiting an open space designed to encourage creativity and community for all is something I wholeheartedly support. But I also think we should know the limits of this particular way of framing what we want the web to be.

 

[1] Note that the free exchange of ideas was still very much subject to who had the financial means and overall ability to use the technology available. Unsurprisingly, most of these individuals were white men.

Utopia or Dystopia? – PUB802 REFLECTION

“I do not fear computers. I fear lack of them.”

— Isaac Asimov

 

Isaac Asimov’s quote puts him in Adam Gopnik’s defined category as a “Never-Better”: an optimistic who has embraced technological change. The issue with this overly-trusting approach is already highlighted in the quote that the reliance on computers and other technology that has the internet is a serious concern for the modern age. At a first glance, the fear of not having computers sounds extreme, but I am one of those people who has a miniature panic attack when I reach for my pocket and realize there is a possibility I may have forgotten my phone in class or at the restaurant I just left. There was a time when phone calls were exclusively done through landlines, but now? To leave one’s phone behind during a night out? Unthinkable. My phone is what I use to track which bus stop to get off at, to listen to music or podcasts during my commute, to alert my friends of my arrival, to take pictures documenting my night, and to order an Uber if need be. Being without my phone makes me feels uncomfortably vulnerable. And it is not just me — this is major cultural change. I like books, but I have never felt dependent on them.

So I will be the first to admit that I am reliant on technology. But does that mean that I trust technology? Am I a Better-Never; a believer that we are living in the Golden Age of technology and that every advancement signifies progress, an evolution worth celebrating? Not necessarily.

Upon being given the prompt, my first instinct was to say that I align myself with the Never-Waser’s. It is an imperfect binary, but I do not think modern technology will be our ruin, nor am I ready to start mourning books when my own collection of hardcovers is large and steadily growing. In many ways, I think what is happening now is not unlike what has happened throughout history where the older generation is nostalgic for a time when things worked differently and human connection was less complicated. There was a time when the older generation feared collecting information in books would mean having a less impressive memory palace and that reading was an antisocial behaviour that should be discouraged. Back in my day, kids used to play outside with their friends! I do not think it is unrealistic to assume that one day a new mode of technology will come out and those in my generation will share tweets and Facebook posts about how different things are. We already do to an extent—hey guys, remember when everyone had to wait their turn to use that one family computer and it used to take forever for one page to load? At present, my generation’s mentality has been “you kids have it so much easier than we did.” We are nostalgic about the shows we would watch during our childhood, but the technology we grew up with has only gotten faster and more intuitive, so maybe there has, in fact, been a recognizable shift.

I cannot conceive of my life without the internet, but not every change it has brought has benefitted humankind. Departing with the Never-Waser mentality of continuity, the following is a list of capabilities that distinguish the computer or the internet from any technology that came before it:

PROS:

  • Greater capability to bring people together
  • Widespread access to knowledge (knowledge of abuses, protests, revolutions)
  • Passive social connections
  • Networking
  • Near-immediate access to food, clothes, and anything else
  • Cultivating communities of people who share a common interest or goal
  • Fundraising (aka America’s healthcare system)
  • Portfolio visibility
  • New accessibility services and a job market that enables freelancing

It is amazing to reflect on how many creative projects and medical procedures like transition surgeries that the internet has made possible. The Parkland Teens’ protest for gun-control that went viral would not have been possible without the internet. It has enabled the global, widespread sharing of information in a way that far exceeds print. But at the same time, it has allowed for the spread of misinformation on an equally astronomical scale. Fraud has never been easier. Sure, there was a time when Johannes Gutenberg would print out indulgences and sell them to God-fearing Christians for a pretty penny, but that is nothing in comparison to how many Nigerian Prince scams have been ran since the advent of the internet. Catfishing is a serious problem and one that can lead to major trauma and depression for those who have experienced it. There has also been the advent of a new type of celebrity – the influencer. My generation loves them. The majority of them are young women who post pictures of themselves living and idealistic lifestyle full of travel, eating, shopping, and visiting anywhere they can to get the perfect shot for Instagram. Their online pages are full of hiding promotions for sponsored products that their followers are encouraged to buy to mimic this unrealistic lifestyle. The Kardashians are a good example of this phenomena.

One of the many issues with capitalism is that it profits from making people feel as depressed and unfulfilled as possible in order to sell them products that promise to provide happiness and fulfilment. Influencers are amazing at creating the envy and disillusionment that capitalism thrives at and they are professionals at promoting materialistic solutions that are packaged as “inspirational.” But these influencers are not reliable, and many are willing to promote products that are dangerous and unethical. The internet has been capitalism’s playground, which leads me to my con list:

CONS

  • The widespread sharing of false information
  • The gathering of racists and misogynists who validate each other
  • Sponsored advertising parading as content
  • Catfishing and general fraud
  • Cyberstalking and general lack of privacy
  • Anonymity
  • Revenge porn
  • Filters leading to increased dysphoria
  • Repaying labour with “exposure”

It is frustrating to be both skeptical of and reliant on technology. Like Never-Betters, I am optimistic that technology will continue to evolve and enable new forms of knowledge, connection, communication, innovation, and art to emerge. Like Better-Nevers, I am pessimistically concerned that our technology will continue to be abused and exploited by scammers, neo-nazis, and capitalistic companies like Amazon and Ticketmaster. In a way, the internet is like the megaphone. It is not inherently good (sorry, Never-Betters) nor is it an inherent threat to our humanity (sorry, Better-Nevers). Instead, it is a tool that is unmatched in its capability to magnify and enable the very best and worst of human behaviour.

The “Collectively-Taking-Control-of-our-Destinyers” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Placing people into categories has long been a device to position ourselves with and simultaneously against others. From race to gender, we often think of characteristics (socially constructed or otherwise) as confined to neat little self-contained boxes as opposed to existing fluidly on a spectrum. In his 2011 New Yorker article “The Information”, Adam Gopnik continues this tradition by describing three frames that we can use to understand humans relationships to technologies. Gopnik’s categories, which in my view are problematically reductionist, break down people into belonging to the “never-better”, the “better-nevers”, and the “ever-wasers”. In other words

1) those who believe in an upward progress where life is perpetually being improved upon because advances in technology

2) the nostalgic or neo-Luddite type who see changes in technology as de-evolution

3) and the more ambivalent group that that see the modern age as defined by changing technology that will please some and displease others.

Although Gopnik has you believe these groups are distinct and mutually exclusive, it would be hard to argue that any one person or society’s relationship to technology could neatly be reduced and packeded up into such opposing ideologies. Instead, I propose that we all contain these attitudes simultaneously—holding different attitudes about different technologies, or even holding different attitudes about the same technology. As someone who grew up in an age before the internet was widespread, I both hold the belief that the internet has improved my life drastically, while simultaneously longing for the days before it was co-opted as a tool for capitalist gains through advertising and other forms of commodification.

Socially we are not nearly as dogmatic or reducionary as these frames provided. Opinions on technologies are deeply situation to time, place, capital, powder, and how specific technologies are used—including by and for whom.

Furthermore, our attitudes about technologies cannot be understood apart from the specific social context and unequal distribution of capital and power from which they originate. There is a tendency to ascribe an innate teleology to technological development, and to ignore the social processes through which advancements in technology are made. This might explain why Gopnik divides people into the categories of “never-betters” and “better-nevers”, with the only third option being pure ambivalence. I would suggest that in opposition to all of these categories, there are those of us who believe that technology is a tool that can be used towards better or worse ends. In order to do this, however we need to ditch the laisse-faire attitude towards technological development, and realize that we do not only interpret advancements in technology, but we create, shape, and determine the direction they take. The three categories proposed position society as passive interpreters to technological advances where instead we should position ourselves as an active part in their creation. Since these category don’t work, perhaps we should fall into the “collectively-taking-control-of-our-destinyers”. Maybe we should view technology as Marx viewed philosophy in his eleventh Theses on Feurback—“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”(Marx, 1845).