Photo by Natalie Rhea Riggs on Unsplash
All over the web, creatives took to social networks to curse Patreon recently because of failed transactions. The Verge reported that many payments have been flagged as fraudulent. In my opinion, much of Patreon’s recent problems have occurred because it is growing too fast, like so many venture capital backed startups.
There’s plenty of editorials around the web criticizing Silicon Valley and the get-rich-quick culture surrounding the web. The country club version of Tumblr, Medium has had a number of issues as it looked for ways to appease investors and the old dog in the neighborhood, Twitter, has always been in the negative. The currency of Silicon Valley isn’t Bitcoin, it’s us, the users. Show big numbers of signups and you get funding. Most new startups use the funding to expand the product and get more users, rather than really making a solid product.
As a Patreon user, I wouldn’t think the company has grown too fast. I sat through many monthly video hang times as users begged for the same features over and over. Meanwhile, Patreon kept hiring new people to expand. What were they doing? After a while, each video hang time included information from Patreon’s in-house data gurus. These presentations were to help users learn how to better extract funds from potential patrons, as in “Here’s what’s working!” It was also a bit of cheer leading to exclaim how great Patreon was doing. Of course, data is helpful for Patreon to expand as well.
Eventually companies get so big that in order to solve a customer problem you must go on a quest through a phone maze, or Sagan forbid, navigate numerous automated emails to find help. To be fair, how else can you service 2 million users?
In my twenties, I bought a house and put on my big boy pants to look for insurance. I wasn’t finding the “deals” my parents spoke of, like when you have your house and car insurance through the same company. So, I started shopping for each separately. My parents warned me against the slick online companies like Geico and Progressive that were advertising such good rates. My father had the same local insurance agent for most of his life. There was a bond there. My dad could call up Vern and say that a rock hit his car windshield and Vern would take care of it without an out of pocket cost. I wasn’t going to have this familiarity if I went with Progressive, it would just be some woman on the phone in another part of the world quoting my deductible cost.
This is the problem of centralized internet companies getting too big. The humanity gets lost. I’ve had a brief conversation with Patreon CEO Jack Conte and I completely respect his work and vision. I interviewed another team member at Patreon and I call her a friend now. I have no ill will to these people despite what I am writing about Patreon, at the moment. I want them to succeed, but I think being a for profit company is getting in the way of helping people. The demand from shareholders to grow makes the product, and so many others like Google and Facebook, lose effectiveness.
That’s not to say it isn’t possible, but the current climate in the business world is all about more. For example, several years ago Facebook had already captured all of the developing world. The only way for them to get more users was to get Third World countries on their product. So, the company started making sim cards for phones. People in Third World countries could switch the sim card from their mobile carrier out and put in the Facebook card to access a version of the site.
Power in Community
Most cities, states, provinces, and villages were founded by like-minded individuals. The pilgrims came to the New World to accuse each other of being witches without the King interfering in their murderous behavior. Okay, that’s not a great example. My point is that the early web was similar. People who grew orchids got together on a forum site to share ideas and techniques. They may have had an area on the board where non-orchid conversation could happen and they got to know each other further.
Then, there was money found in the world wide web. We got America Online, MySpace, and Facebook. The orchid forum gave way to a more general gardening group chat. Instead of 400 orchid lovers from around the world, you got 4,000,000 people talking about weeds, basil, and hay fever. Instead of the passionate and opinionated conversation between Rosita, Cheryl, and Guillaume, you get a thousand people shouting just to be heard. The humanity is lost.
Communities are still possible online! We don’t all have to join a service just because our friends and family are there. It’s possible to share your pictures and thoughts on your own blog. Is it really that inconvenient to click on a bookmark in a browser? Nope. On Facebook, I am a number lost in an algorithm. On Mastodon, as a Trekkie I can join TenForward.social and share conversation with fellow Star Trek fans. Since Mastodon is built on a protocol (like email), I can also chat with people on other servers of different subjects. This way I don’t need multiple accounts for orchids, Star Trek, and my old high school chums. If I have a problem connecting or I want to donate to ensure the server doesn’t go down, I can contact the administrator directly. Seriously, you can talk to another human!
This is why I think projects like Mastodon are so important. This is the internet the way it was originally designed, information traveling freely, not through corporate silos. You may feel it is no different, either you’re under the thumb of Mark Zuckerberg or the administrator of TenForward.social. However, in one you are the product, in the other you are part of a community sustaining the server. If you don’t like the way it is administered, you can start your own, or just like a web page, you can buy your own Mastodon instance and make the rules.
Of course, even non-profits aren’t perfect. LiberaPay, a similar platform to Patreon has had its problems as well. Though, it is interesting to note that the issues seem to be with the larger payment processing company, similar to Patreon’s many woes. Yet, LiberaPay may be able to weather the storm of discontent and problems because it is growing at a natural pace. Their 10,360 users may be easier to manage through a crisis as LiberaPay grows, than the over 2,000,000 users at Patreon.
Again, this is why I like the model of online communities. There could come a time when there are too many people or opinions on the Mastondon instance of TenForward.social. Perhaps a schism could arise between those who favor the new films and fans of the older films and shows. And so, a new community would be born, maybe Kelvin.timeline. The opposite could happen as well. Just as in the real world when a town grows into area communities and they join together to share resources, communities online could do the same.
Instead of going after users and numbers, we can use the web to connect to other humans, not profits. This is what many Patreon creators have learned. They started a community of fans and patrons who didn’t just support them financially, but interacted with the creators. The connection is what sustains the creators, not the simple number of payments they are receiving.
Patreon and the corporate sites aren’t going away, but you can choose how you want the web of the future to treat you. Do you want to be a commodity bought and sold by corporations, or do you want to be part of a community, sharing ideas and a common humanity?