Thursday, March 22, 2018

That thesis I wrote about Patreon

I wrote a thesis about Patreon.

There are different ways of going about writing a thesis about Patreon. An intuitive approach would be an instrumental, goal-oriented investigation as to which strategies work and which do not. The findings of such an investigation could then be distilled into a simple list of do's and don'ts, which readers could implement in short order and (probably, maybe, hopefully) generate more revenue.

I did not write that kind of thesis. If you came here looking for simple, straightforward advice about how to run your Patreon page, then this wall of text is not for you. (Neither are the posts about my my other theses, for that matter, despite them all relating to each other in interesting ways.)

What I did was seemingly simple. I asked a straightforward question, and saw where it took me. The question was thus: what is Patreon, and what does being on it do to you?

As with all straightforward questions, the answer turns out to be everything but clear cut and easy to summarize. In order to answer it, we have to answer a couple of sub-questions first, just to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Seeing as this was a thesis in Rhetoric (Americans call it Composition and/or Speech; the discipline has different names depending on where you happen to be geographically), the first of these sub-questions is what we mean by "rhetoric". To summarize hundreds of years of back and forths, there are two main answers to this question. The first is the (neo-)Aristotelian answer that it is the art of finding the best possible means of convincing someone in a particular situation. In this case, rhetoric would be a set of strategies for maximizing Patreon donations, with varying degrees of excellence in execution. The other answer looks at the situation as a whole and asks what it implies for those who participate in it, and if things could be done differently. In this case, rhetoric consists of analyzing what it means to have a Patreon page, which implicit assumptions inform interactions on this page, and how these assumptions might lead to outcomes that were neither expected nor beneficial for the participants.

As you might have gleaned from the gist of things, my thesis fell firmly into the latter category. Hence the lack of simple, straightforward advice in list form.

We need to keep the different kinds of rhetoric in mind, as the difference between them tells us something about what goes on with regards to Patreon. Specifically, we shall look at the concept of "ethos" and how it plays out differently in the two paradigms.

In the (neo-)Aristotelian framework, ethos is a means of persuasion. The word "ethos" connotes everything that is related to the person doing the talking, and how these aspects of self are being used to convince the audience to do something. In this case, the "something" is donating. There are many possible means, depending on who is doing the asking for donations. For instance, various ailments or difficulties can be leveraged to generate sympathy, which creates a willingness to donate. Similarly, skills can be leveraged to show how donations go towards new projects (e.g. donate so I can afford to make a new movie or whatever). Or a common goal can be invoked, along with a more or less defined correlation between donating and achieving this goal (e.g. most fundraisers and charity drives). And so on and so forth. In short, ethos is a means to an end, and it is used as such.

In the more modern framework, "ethos" is more akin to "ethics", in that it connotes a way of being in the world. It is not as directly interested in solving the problem at hand, as it is in understanding the communicative process in a wider context. For instance, it does not see communication in terms of problems to solve (in this case, how to get people to donate), but rather as a series of interactions which generate certain expectations on future interactions. It also emphasizes the role of choice on the part of the person doing the communication - they can choose to present themselves this way or that, and they do so on the basis of available knowledge and ethical propensities. A person does not present themselves in a certain way only in order to solve a problem, but also as a way of being in the world. A Patreon page is not just an invitation to donate - it is also a declaration: this is who I am and what I do.

This might seem like a subtle difference, and it is. Thus, an example is in order, to put the two perspectives in perspective.

Let's say we have a rhetor without any particular political opinions one way or the other. One day, he (let's make it a he) stumbles upon an alt-right blog, and notices two things. First, that it gets a lot of donations. Second, that it is very formulaic and uncreative, and mostly posts the same things over and over and over again with minor variations. Based on these two observations, he decides to hack the process and start his own blog in a similar vein. Not because he agrees with the opinions expressed, but because it seems an easier way to get an income than doing more labor-intensive work. After a while, his low-effort blog gets noticed by the true believers, and the donation money starts to pour in. Seeing as it works, he puts a little more effort into it, and eventually finds himself being a part of this political ecology. Not because he believes in what he writes, but because the donation money keeps coming his way.

Seen through the (neo-)Aristotelian framework, he has solved the problem. By presenting himself as someone who holds these particular beliefs, he manages to persuade his audience to donate money. He has succeeded with what he set out to do, and his audience is happy to see him keep at it.

As you might imagine, the modern framework is less than sympathetic to this course of action. For one, he uses his powers of rhetoric to exploit those who are vulnerable to this kind of industrially produced propaganda, in a sense preying on the weak. For another, his participation in this political milieu reinforces its message and makes it a more prevalent presence in the online spaces he frequents; there is strength in numbers, and he now numbers among them. Moreover, this is not the best use of his rhetorical skills, and he could contribute better things to the world than a low-effort repetition of insincerely held opinions.

In the former case, our fictive rhetor makes good use of ethos, as he manages to present himself as a fellow extremist, thus getting his audience to donate. In the latter, he fails his ethical obligation to be a good person whose presence in the world makes a positive difference when all is said and done. He has not been good company.

If you have read this far, you might have thought that we have moved rather orthogonally with regards to what Patreon is and how being on it affects its users. But I reckon you also understand why simply asking what to do in order to make donations happen is insufficient in order to understand what is going on. It is more than merely a quest to maximize the monthly donations, and the analysis has to widen in order to take all the relevant aspects into account.

With this in mind, we can pose the question of what Patreon is. In the simplest terms possible, it is a web site that allows people to ask for money from other people. Patreon also provides an economic infrastructure for getting said donations from here to there. Anyone can create a Patreon page and ask for donations on it. Moreover, they can present themselves in whatever terms they like in order to make these donations happen. This is, in short, it.

(To be sure, there are certain limitations as to who is allowed on the site, mostly relating to contradictory US social values. In order to keep things brief, I'm going to gloss over this fact with the quickness.)

This presents us with an interesting rhetorical situation. On the one hand, Patreon users are free to define themselves however they like, applying every bit of autonomy and rhetorical prowess they can muster. On the other hand, the very act of being on Patreon is a message in and of itself. Patreon exists to facilitate donations, and anyone who has a page is asking for such donations - even if they do not write anything on their page at all. There is communication going on between the lines whether the user acknowledges it or not. At the end of the day, a Patreon page is a Patreon page.

During the course of my thesis writing, I identified three strategies (broadly defined) for writing a Patreon page. Here, I present them in falling order of popularity.

The most common strategy is to describe what happens when someone donates. This is heavily encouraged through the system of rewards and goals; if an individual donates x amount of dollars, they get a reward, and if the accumulated donations reach a certain level, some action which could not previously be performed will now be performed. In this way, the relationship between the parties involved is well defined: everyone knows what will happen, and donors can weigh their options before choosing a course of action.

Another common strategy is to not have rewards, but to frame donations as encouragements to keep whatever activity is at hand going. The donation becomes its own reward, as it were. There are still overall goals (e.g. at x amount of total donations there will be an upgrade of recording equipment) but individuals are not rewarded above and beyond knowing that the thing they enjoy can keep doing its thing.

A less common strategy is to flat out not reward donations at all, but accept them nevertheless. This might be done for tax reasons (some legislations exempt gifts from taxation, and explicitly not giving anything in return qualifies the exchange as a gift rather than a business transaction). They might also do it to avoid getting into a situation where gratitude is required (those who choose to donate even though they know they will receive nothing in return know that this is not a purchase). Or it might simply be because the user simply can't be bothered to think of something to write. There are no goals, no rewards, but the option to donate is open nevertheless.

It would seem at first glance that this last strategy is counter to the whole concept of having a donation page. But - as we saw earlier - simply having a Patreon page is a message in and of itself, and sometimes this is enough to get the point across.

All of these strategies deal with the tension between freedom and autonomy. Freedom means doing what you want to do, while autonomy means defining your own laws (or, in this case, your own goals). The tension comes into being whenever you want to do something that requires more effort than simply doing it. For instance, reading a book requires that you keep reading until you've read all you decided to read. At any point you are free to stop reading, but if you want to finish the reading, you have to make the decision to limit your range of options until it is completed. If you set a goal for yourself, you also have to discipline yourself until the goal is achieved.

The tension here is that both freedom and autonomy are limitations of each other. The defining characteristic of autonomy is that you choose your own rules and goals. Once you set upon the path of realizing the chosen course of action, however, you must limit yourself to doing the things that lead to attaining the goal. Not because someone else tells you to, but because this is what you decided to do. Whether it happens to be reading a book, finishing an education, or performing some other feat, the dynamic remains the same: once your decision has been made, you have to stick to it. Even if you at times feel like doing something else.

An example of this (to stick with the literary theme) is writing a book. The only way to finish it is to sit down and write. It might be tempting to go outside to enjoy the nice weather, or binge watch all seasons of Buffy, or go hang out with friends. At all points in time, you are free to go do these things. But if you ever want to finish that book - the goal that you, by your own volition, set for yourself - you have to set these freedoms aside and focus upon the task of writing.

Looking back on the three strategies outlined above, we can see how the tension plays out in each of them. The third strategy - that of not rewarding patrons - maximizes the amount of freedom in the relationship between parties. No reward is given, no reward is expected, and donations keep happening in so far as the donors find it in their interest to continue. The creator, for their part, can choose whichever creative direction they desire, unburdened by expectations and obligations. What you see is 100% what you get, take it or leave it.

This can be contrasted with the first strategy, that of giving specific rewards to everyone who donates a particular amount of money. Here, autonomy is maximized, is as far as the creator can choose which rewards are awarded at which levels of donation. However, over time, this might lead to the creators finding themselves spending more time than initially expected making sure that donors get their just rewards. Making a donation is, in a sense, to enter into a contract, and it is up to the creators to live up to their part of the bargain. The freedom of the present is bound by autonomy expressed in the past. (Whether this is a productive relationship between creators and donors, or an inescapable iron cage where next month's rent depends on cranking out yet another unit, is always a contextual question.)

The middle strategy is, of course, a combination of the two. A degree of freedom is maintained, but if donations reach a certain level, something will happen. This something, while it is not a reward or contract in the same way as we saw above, is still a promise, and as such brings with it the obligation to fulfill it. (If nothing else, it looks - and sounds - bad if the audio recording equipment has not been upgraded for months and months after reaching the goal.)

I should stress that there is nothing inherently wrong with aiming for either autonomy or freedom in these matters. The point of this wall of text is not to say that you should do either instead of the other. Rather, the point - the thesis, as it were - is that you ought to make an informed choice when you create a Patreon page, and write it in such a way that you can live with who you potentially become. Giving lots of rewards is labor-intensive, but it is also an efficient strategy to get those donations to happen. Conversely, you might find that your creative efforts are hampered by the amount of extra effort you have accidentally committed yourself to. It all depends on who you are and what you are about.

Seen in this light, we are rapidly approaching an answer to the question of what Patreon is and how it affects its users. Moreover, we are able to ask new and interesting questions with regards to the ethos/ethics of online donation services. Given that Patreon users are free to define themselves and what they do (and for how much money this will be done), the tension between freedom and autonomy becomes front and center. Having a Patreon page becomes not only a way of asking for money, it also becomes an act of self-definition: this is who I am and what I do.

So. Donate to my Patreon, maybe?

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Avoiding the problem head on

Valentine's Day approaches, and with it, a new blog project. This one will be the tenth iteration, and thus I wanted to do something special. My usual approach is to figure out a concept and use it as a template for new ideas - Relationship Statues is an example of that. This means I do not have a great deal of verbiage at hand on day one, and ever so gradually figure out what kind of posts to write. It's discovery and exploration as much as anything. This time, however, it is different.

This time, the new blog has a definite beginning, middle and end. And - more importantly - it is frontloaded to a never before seen degree.

This has me worried.

The funny thing about being worried is that there are different kinds of worry. There is the worry that the world will end, an all-consuming paralyzing worry. Or the worry that some dangerous element in one's immediate presence will spring into action, like a tiger. Or the worry that some elaborately planned course of events will fail to occur, leaving you in an awkward position (or botching that job interview). Or the worry that some unforeseen aspect will reveal itself and cause all previous plans to become obsolete - the factory closes, the application is rejected, the price goes up instead of down. Tangible, concrete worries about very specific things.

And then, there is my worry. I worry about capitalization.

That's right. Should I spell certain words beginning with an uppercase or lowercase letter? This is something I worry about.

There are two ways to understand this worry. One is to take it at its word, and face it head on. In the grand scheme of things, there are arguments for either case, and the matter can be resolved by simply picking one course of action and sticking with it. It might raise an eyebrow, but since it is consistent, it won't be a big deal. The worry is about a concrete problem that can be solved.

The other way to understand this worry is as a symptom. What I'm really worried about is not actually the capitalization (although having it solved would be a minor step forward). It is, however, a convenient thing to be worried about - thinking about it means not having to confront other things that are also worrying, but more indirect and difficult to pin down. If it was not this, the generalized worry would find some other minute aspect to zoom in on and fuss about.

This goes not only for this project, but for everything. Sometimes, you are worried about some minor detail because you genuinely do not know if it's this way or that, and the problem will go away if a solution comes along. At other times, the problem is not the problem, and the solution is to zoom out and take stock of the larger picture.

The difficulty is telling which is which, and when. -

Sunday, January 14, 2018

It's not the end of the world, but we can see it from here

The world did not end yesterday.

This statement has two qualities. One is that it is universally true for literally every situation you will find yourself in, a precondition for situations being that yesterday led to the present. The second, and more immediately pressing quality, is that it is related to a very specific event.

If you are reading in the future, then here is the context: yesterday, an alarm went off in Hawaii, warning about an imminent ballistic strike. Which is a technical way of saying that the nukes are coming, and they are coming this way. As you might imagine, this caused quite a bit of emotional anxiety for everyone involved. The fact that the whole ordeal happened because someone pressed the wrong button (I have been given impression that this is the literal truth, rather than mere evocative language) - did not help.

In fact, very few things help when the world is about to end. That is kind of the point of the world ending.

This is a very immediate situation to find oneself in. Everything becomes irrelevant, and one singular question becomes the totality of all possible lines of thinking: what do you do? Nothing matters any more, and thus the only thing that matters is what you do. Other questions, such as "what would others think?" "would this look good on my CV?" "does this affect my credit rating?" "can I really afford it in the long run?" - are swept away, and you are left with the immediacy of choice: do or do not, do this or do that. The long term is gone, this is your moment to define yourself in terms of your own. For the duration, you are the most important thing in your reality. You decide. What do you do?

This immediacy is both terrifying and, in a perverse way, liberating. The word that most perfectly summarizes the situation is the old version of "awesome": to be struck to one's very core with awe in the presence of some overwhelming factor which quite literally is larger than anything one has ever encountered before. It is the kind of experience that leaves you mouth agape and your mind repeating: everything I knew was wrong. Nothing makes sense any more, and because of that, the multitude of considerations that permeate everyday life melts away. Nothing makes sense, and the only thing that is of any importance whatsoever is:

What do you do?

Fortunately, the news about the world ending happened to be greatly exaggerated. We are still here to talk about it, and to try to get a grip on what this all means. Most, I suspect, will see it as just another news item among many, and not think too closely about it; there are still plenty of everyday chores to be done, and the non-ending of the world means they will not do themselves. Life goes on, with ruthless indifference, and this confronts us with a single, even more pressing question:

What do we do now?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Backstage sociology

This semester, we talked a lot about Goffman's concepts of frontstage and backstage. One of the things that struck me about it is that it is, as so many other concepts, fractal. You can apply it to just about any level, and then move either upwards or downwards, finding roughly the same processes going on. The scales differ, but the process remains the same.

These words have the advantage of meaning what you think they mean. Backstage is the social space behind the stage, where the last-minute rehearsals, costume changes and informal banter takes place, while frontstage is, well, on stage. The two spaces have different social dynamics, and things that are proper in one is improper in the other, and vice versa. While the play is on, only the actors who are supposed to be on stage are on stage, and they have very defined roles to play; the show must go on. Only when they have retreated backstage can the actors let their guard down, stop acting and - quite unceremoniously - collapse into the post-performance heaps they really are.

The audience members, too, have roles to fill whilst the show is on. The fact that these roles mostly consist of sitting and watching makes them comparatively easy to play; this does not, however, take away from the fact that things get very strange very fast if audience members suddenly decide to join in on the action. Everyone present have roles to fill, and most everyone present know these roles implicitly.

A non-theatrical example is a restaurant. Out among the tables, things are quiet and posh, with hushed conversations taking place among the dining guests, a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. In the kitchen, however, the hustle and bustle is in full swing, with yelling, fast-paced motions and a stress level that is through the roof. The difference between frontstage and backstage is not subtle.

The fact that these two states of things happen in close proximity to each other means that there have to be boundaries between them. Often enough, these boundaries are subtle until you try to cross them. A restaurant guest is usually not allowed into the kitchen, and quickly escorted out should they somehow stumble into it. Shoppers are allowed to browse the store area, but any attempt to enter the back rooms will be ever so efficiently discouraged. If you do not have a keycard, you are not allowed into the office building. At concerts, only those with backstage passes are allowed into these mystical spaces.

Most spaces can be analyzed using these concepts. They are very versatile in this regard.

They are also fractal. Individuals act differently when they are frontstage (often quite literally meaning that they are not alone) than when they are backstage, and the boundaries between these states allow very few persons access. A small group (beginning at two persons) can similarly act differently when in a frontstage setting than when alone, with similar boundaries to entry. A large group (a theatre production, for instance) can project a particular image frontstage, while having very different dynamics backstage. And so on, scaling up as much as need be. (I suspect the discovery of alien life will have interesting implications in this regard.)

The only thing needed to use these concepts is an impulse to apply them to concrete situations. Upon reading this, you now have this impulse.

Have fun.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Spoiler warnings and you

There is a new Star Wars on the loose. With it comes the division of the entire human race into two categories, as radical as it is universal: those who have seen it, and those who have not seen it. The gulf between these categories is immense and absolute; there are no in-betweens.

Except, of course, in the case of spoilers.

Given that I at one point was a media studies major, spoilers are utterly irrelevant to me. There is no "right" way to consume media - there are only degrees and ways of paying attention. Knowing how something ends prior to seeing it does nothing to change the experience. Everything important lies in how the medium is being used (and sometimes abused). The narrative aspects are a part of that, but there are many other parts of equal importance, and a movie is at all times the interplay between all of its parts.

To be sure, there are movies that rely heavily on surprise endings. Good ones are described in terms of subverting expectations; bad ones in terms of deus ex machinas. If a movie does not hold water despite the surprise being foretold, it is not spoiled - it was always-already a bad movie. We do not rewatch favorite movies because they surprise us, but because they are good company. If a movie is bad company, it will be thus even if someone already told you the butler did it. The goodness and badness lies not in you having knowledge - it lies on the level of production, geometry and acting.

Very few viewers found themselves disliking the recent remake of the Orient Express because they knew how it ended. The enjoyment and/or dissatisfaction lies elsewhere.

Looking around on social media tells me that this is not a view widely held. There are people posting spoilers, people yelling at the aforementioned group for posting spoilers, and people decrying the posting of spoilers in general. It is something of a trending topic, especially in relation to the new Star Wars movie. Posting spoilers is framed akin to murdering the movie, a sin above and beyond the pale. Friendships have ended over it.

It is interesting to note this difference in perspectives on media. On the one hand, there is the view that spoilers are irrelevant. On the other, the view that spoilers are everything. Both are valid experiences of being human. The fact that both views can coexist and seldom interact with each other tells us something about this world we live in.

I do not know exactly what it tells us. But it would be nice if someone posted a spoiler of it. -

Monday, December 11, 2017

Connecting the recent developments of Patreon and bitcoins

These last few days have been intense, online-wise. Patreon did what they did, and the price of bitcoins soared way above the limits of reason and sanity.

It is tempting to see these two things as connected. It is even more tempting to connect them. Because it is a very easy thing to do.

The thing about what Patreon did is that it underscores the need for what bitcoin supporters claim bitcoins do. Patreon gave - gives - everyone the opportunity to donate money at people without too much fuss, and it provided a social vehicle for accepting these donations. At the heart of Patreon's raison d'etre we find the sending and receiving of money.

In short, online transfers of money is kind of a big deal. For Patreon and bitcoin both.

If we go back to the olden days of bitcoin evangelism, we find that the emphasis was much more on the crypto than on the currency part of cryptocurrency. It would be possible to perform transactions in secret, without the prying eyes of government surveilling every transaction. You didn't have to justify why you used your digital moneys the way you did - you could do what you want with them. Including donating them to others for no particular reason whatsoever. No borders, no taxes, no limits, no donation fees.

There is no reason bitcoins could not have evolved to fill a similar role Patreon fills: donations freely given to those who are deemed worthy of them. There could have been an active crowdfunding culture within the bitcoin community.

But there isn't. And there can't be.

The reasons are manifold, but they all revolve around the fact that bitcoins fundamentally do not work as money. The recent dramatic rise in value of bitcoins, with values eclipsing $16 000, only serves to underscore this fact: if you bought something with bitcoins a week or two ago, you would have lost out on this increase. The deflationary nature of bitcoins mean that any use of them that is not getting more bitcoins is an irrational use. Buying things with bitcoins is always a losing proposition; the only winning move is to sit on them until their value inevitably rises.

The most extreme example is the bitcoin pizza, bought for 10 000 bitcoins; the estimated value of that pizza is now $137,408,583.

Moreover, the wildly fluctuating value of bitcoins make it hard to price things. You might try to sell a pair of socks for what currently seems a reasonable price, only to discover mere hours later that it now amounts to thousands of dollars. Sellers cannot set prices, buyers cannot gauge if the prices that are set actually make sense, and the usual market mechanisms determining prices are in effect nullified. Prices carry no information, and in conjunction with the deflationary process mentioned above, it makes using bitcoins as currency a wager at best and a guaranteed loss at worst.

Adding to all this is the cost of conducting bitcoin transactions. Turns out there is in fact a transaction cost to bitcoins, aptly named a fee. Sending money without paying the fee will either take a long time, or simply fail. The minimum fee is 0.00001 bitcoins, or a $1.52; more if you want the transaction to complete with any degree of certainty and/or quickness. It is not unheard of for fees to reach the twenty dollar mark.

Needless to say, buying a ten dollar pizza for thirty dollars is the opposite of a good deal.

The list goes on. The bottom line is that bitcoins do not work as money, and by extension that they cannot work as a replacement for Patreon.

At this point, I suspect that there might be a non-zero amount of readers going: why does any of this even matter? What is the connection between bitcoins and Patreon?

The trivial answer is that there is no connection. The more interesting answer is that by juxtaposing these two things with each other, we find out something useful. On the side of Patreon, we have an actually existing real usecase in the world, which might very soon be in need of a replacement; on the side of bitcoins, we find an utter fucking failure to be even theoretically relevant to this usecase.

This has implications for the "currency" part of cryptocurrency. Given that I am not part of the bitcoin community, I leave it to those readers who are to grapple with these implications best they can.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The economic utility of dry feet

Patreon has made an announcement about some upcoming changes to their fee structuring, and this has caused quite a stir. To understate it slightly, these changes are somewhat unpopular and inexplicable to creators and patrons alike. I expect there to be continued discussions about these changes in the days to come.

In a strange chain of associations, this made me think about the economics-related term 'helicopter drops'. In short, a helicopter drop consists of giving everyone a one-shot amount of money, in order to stimulate the economy. The main component of an economy is people spending money on things, and they cannot spend money they do not have. Thus, ensuring that everyone has slightly more money than before would subsequently ensure that they spent more, which would have ripple-effects all through society, as the increased economic activity would spur even more economic activity.

Further along the chain of associations, this made me think about the many things we postpone to do due to a lack of funds. Not because it isn't necessary, but because we cannot comfortably afford doing it quite yet. By pushing these things into the future, we ensure that the money we do have can be spent on the things that are acutely necessary, rather than long-term necessary. A slight discomfort in the present is the price to pay for being ready to face the future, when the time comes.

My shoes are an example of this. There are holes in them, and my feet get wet every now and again. They are broken, but it is not critical, and I can squeeze another month of use out of them if I mind my step.

There are any number of similar examples, most of which we have stopped thinking about due to having gotten used to them. I suspect that a modest helicopter drop, in the range of some $5000, would be funneled directly into the equivalent of new shoes. It would not make anyone rich or change the fundamental structure of society, but it would ensure that people had less holes in their shoes. The benefits would be impossible to measure with econometrics, but they would at the same time be immeasurably tangible to those involved.

I do not know if this thought is useful to you, but here it is.