Category: Microcasts (page 2 of 2)

Paywalls and Patreon

I was part of the discussion that led to this post about Medium’s paywall. Richard Bartlett, whose work with Enspiral, Loomio, and decentralised organising I have huge respect for, has been experimenting with different options to support his work:

Last year I wrote about my dilemma: I have an ethical commitment to the commons, and I want to make a living from my writing. I want to publish all my creative work for free, and I am at my most creative when I have a reliable income. In that story I shared my long history of writing on the web, and my desire to free up time for more ambitious writing projects. Since then I have made a bunch of experiments with different ways of making money from my writing, including Patreon, the Medium Partner Program and LeanPub.

Patreon, which I’ve started to use for Thought Shrapnel, seems to be working out well for Bartlett, however:

To earn a full salary from Patreon, I would need many more supporters, requiring a marketing effort that starts to feel like begging. The gift economy is lovely in theory, especially because there’s no coercion: contributions are voluntary, and there is no punishment for readers who choose to not contribute. But when I interrogate these dynamics at a deeper level, I’m less satisifed.

In my point of view, social capital is subject to the same accumulative and alienating dynamics as financial capital. It’s even more dangerous in some senses, as the transactions are impossible to track, so it is much harder to redistribute accumulations of wealth.

Personally I redistribute 10% of my income to other Patreon creators who I think are doing more important and less fundable work than me: street poet David Merritt and anarchist authors William Gillis and Emmi Bevensee. At least this is a gesture to remind myself that the social capitalist is no more woke than the financial capitalist.

Frankly, as a producer, the clean transaction of buyer and seller just feels better to me. It feels good to produce something of value and have that value acknowledged by somebody purchasing it.

It’s a post worth reading in its entirety, and I don’t want to include any more than three quotations here. Suffice to say that Bartlett has found Medium’s paywall approach useful for discovery but actually find Leanpub the best option:

So, the trickle of income from Patreon feels nice, but I don’t want to self-promote more than I already am. Medium’s paywall is a promising income stream, but I risk losing the audience I care most about. So far it feels like publishing on LeanPub hits the sweet spot between revenue and ethics. So I’m considering that my next experiment could be to package up my existing blog posts into a kind of “best of” ebook that people can buy if they want to support my writing.

I’d suggest that a ‘paywall’ is always going to be problematic. The reason I allow people to support my work is that some people just have more spare money than other people (for whatever reason) and/or some people like supporting things they value financially.

At the moment, I release microcasts as a supporter-only perk. However, given that Patreon allows ‘early access’ another approach would be to set everything on a delay. I’m still, like Bartlett, weighing up all of this, but for now Patreon seems like a great option.

Source: Richard D. Bartlett

The New Octopus: going beyond managerial interventions for internet giants

This article in Logic magazine was brought to my attention by a recent issue of Ian O’Byrne’s excellent TL;DR newsletter. It’s a long read, focusing on the structural power of internet giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

The author, K. Sabeel Rahman, is an assistant professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He uses historical analogues to make his points, while noting how different the current state of affairs is from a century ago.

As in the Progressive Era, technological revolutions have radically transformed our social, economic, and political life. Technology platforms, big data, AI—these are the modern infrastructures for today’s economy. And yet the question of what to do about technology is fraught, for these technological systems paradoxically evoke both bigness and diffusion: firms like Amazon and Alphabet and Apple are dominant, yet the internet and big data and AI are technologies that are by their very nature diffuse.

The problem, however, is not bigness per se. Even for Brandeisians, the central concern was power: the ability to arbitrarily influence the decisions and opportunities available to others. Such unchecked power represented a threat to liberty. Therefore, just as the power of the state had to be tamed through institutional checks and balances, so too did this private power have to be contested—controlled, held to account.

This emphasis on power and contestation, rather than literal bigness, helps clarify the ways in which technology’s particular relationship to scale poses a challenge to ideals of democracy, liberty, equality—and what to do about it.

I think this is the thing that concerns me most. Just as the banks were ‘too big to fail’ during the economic crisis and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, so huge technology companies are increasingly playing that kind of role elsewhere in our society.

The problem of scale, then, has always been a problem of power and contestability. In both our political and our economic life, arbitrary power is a threat to liberty. The remedy is the institutionalization of checks and balances. But where political checks and balances take a common set of forms—elections, the separation of powers—checks and balances for private corporate power have proven trickier to implement.

These various mechanisms—regulatory oversight, antitrust laws, corporate governance, and the countervailing power of organized labor— together helped create a relatively tame, and economically dynamic, twentieth-century economy. But today, as technology creates new kinds of power and new kinds of scale, new variations on these strategies may be needed.

“Arbitrary power is a threat to liberty.” Absolutely, no matter whether the company holding that power has been problematic in the past, has a slogan promising not to do anything wrong, or is well-liked by the public.

We need more than regulatory oversight of such organisations because of how insidious their power can be — much like the image of Luks’ octopus that accompanies this and the original post.

Rahman explains three types of power held by large internet companies:

First, there is transmission power. This is the ability of a firm to control the flow of data or goods. Take Amazon: as a shipping and logistics infrastructure, it can be seen as directly analogous to the railroads of the nineteenth century, which enjoyed monopolized mastery over the circulation of people, information, and commodities. Amazon provides the literal conduits for commerce.

[…]

A second type of power arises from what we might think of as a gatekeeping power. Here, the issue is not necessarily that the firm controls the entire infrastructure of transmission, but rather that the firm controls the gateway to an otherwise decentralized and diffuse landscape.

This is one way to understand the Facebook News Feed, or Google Search. Google Search does not literally own and control the entire internet. But it is increasingly true that for most users, access to the internet is mediated through the gateway of Google Search or YouTube’s suggested videos. By controlling the point of entry, Google exercises outsized influence on the kinds of information and commerce that users can ultimately access—a form of control without complete ownership.

[…]

A third kind of power is scoring power, exercised by ratings systems, indices, and ranking databases. Increasingly, many business and public policy decisions are based on big data-enabled scoring systems. Thus employers will screen potential applicants for the likelihood that they may quit, be a problematic employee, or participate in criminal activity. Or judges will use predictive risk assessments to inform sentencing and bail decisions.

These scoring systems may seem objective and neutral, but they are built on data and analytics that bake into them existing patterns of racial, gender, and economic bias.

[…]

Each of these forms of power is infrastructural. Their impact grows as more and more goods and services are built atop a particular platform. They are also more subtle than explicit control: each of these types of power enable a firm to exercise tremendous influence over what might otherwise look like a decentralized and diffused system.

As I quote Adam Greenfield as saying in Microcast #021 (supporters only!) this infrastructural power is less obvious because of the immateriality of the world controlled by internet giants. We need more than managerial approaches to solving the problems faced by their power.

A more radical response, then, would be to impose structural restraints: limits on the structure of technology firms, their powers, and their business models, to forestall the dynamics that lead to the most troubling forms of infrastructural power in the first place.

One solution would be to convert some of these infrastructures into “public options”—publicly managed alternatives to private provision. Run by the state, these public versions could operate on equitable, inclusive, and nondiscriminatory principles. Public provision of these infrastructures would subject them to legal requirements for equal service and due process. Furthermore, supplying a public option would put competitive pressures on private providers.

[…]

We can also introduce structural limits on technologies with the goal of precluding dangerous concentrations of power. While much of the debate over big data and privacy has tended to emphasize the concerns of individuals, we might view a robust privacy regime as a kind of structural limit: if firms are precluded from collecting or using certain types of data, that limits the kinds of power they can exercise.

Some of this is already happening, thankfully, through structural limitations such as GDPR. I hope this is the first step in a more coordinated response to internet giants who increasingly have more impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens than their governments.

Moving fast and breaking things is inevitable in moments of change. The issue is which things we are willing to break—and how broken we are willing to let them become. Moving fast may not be worth it if it means breaking the things upon which democracy depends.

It’s a difficult balance. However, just as GDPR has put in place mechanisms to prevent the over-reaching of governments and of companies, I think we could think differently about perhaps organisations with non-profit status and community ownership that could provide some of the infrastructure being built by shareholder-owned organisations.

Having just finished reading Utopia for Realists, I definitely think the left needs to think bigger than it’s currently doing, and really push that Overton window.

Source: Logic magazine (via Ian O’Byrne)

Alternatives to all of Facebook’s main features

Over on a microcast at Patreon (subscribers only, I’m afraid) I referenced an email conversation I’ve been having about getting people off Facebook.

WIRED has a handy list of apps that replicate the functionality of the platform. It’s important to bear in mind that no other platform has the same feature set as Facebook. Of course it doesn’t, because no other platform has the dollars and support of the military-industrial complex quite like Facebook.

Nevertheless, here’s what WIRED suggests:

(Note: I haven’t included ‘birthday reminders’ as that would have involved linking to a Facebook help page, and I don’t link to Facebook. Full stop.)

I’ve used, and like, all of the apps on that list, with the exception of Paperless Post, which looks like it’s iOS-only.

OK, so it’s not easy getting people off a site that provides so much functionality, but it’s certainly possible. Lead by example, people.

Source: WIRED

Support Thought Shrapnel on Patreon

For almost a year, I’ve been building up supporters for Thought Shrapnel through a semi-automated workflow that involved Gumroad. I still think that’s an excellent platform but, this week, I emailed the ~50 current supporters of Thought Shrapnel to let them know I’ll be transitioning to a Patreon page I’ve set up.

The most economically powerful thing you can do is to buy something for your own enjoyment that also improves the world. This has always been the value proposition of journalism and art. It’s a nonexclusive good that’s best enjoyed nonexclusively. (kottke.org)

If you value Thought Shrapnel, then please do consider backing it on Patreon. You can do so from as little as $1 per month. The first goal I’ve identified is to reach 100 supporters, as it really encourages me to keep on going with this endeavour!

As part of the transition, I’ll be moving Microcasts over to Patreon too. That’s for three reasons:

  1. They didn’t quite fit in with being part of the feed here on the Thought Shrapnel blog.
  2. I find that having them as fully public means I self-censor a bit, something I don’t have to do when I know I’m talking to people who better understand my context.
  3. Supporters on Patreon can get access to a private RSS feed they can add to their favourite podcast client.

The final bonus of the move is that it’s more likely to lead to interactions with the community around Thought Shrapnel. I’m already enjoying interacting with those who I support on Patreon, and look forward to doing similarly with you!

Become a Patron!

Thanks in advance 👍

Microcast #005

Thinking through an approach to building Project MoodleNet that came to me this weekend, using Google search, Amazon filtering, and the Pinterest browser button as mental models.

Links:

Microcast #004



Is it really a ‘skills gap’ that we should be talking about? What’s the real problem here?

Links:

Microcast #003



What technologies are going to be used with Project MoodleNet?

Links:

Microcast #002



What’s Doug working on this week?

Links:

Microcast #001

What is microcasting? Why has it suddenly appeared on Thought Shrapnel? Whose voice will you hear? How often will one of these appear in the stream? How are these produced?

Links:

Microcast #000



Just setting this thing up with the assistance of my two children…

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