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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Patreon And The Economics And Psychology Of Social Media Creators

ThePeach recently made a video on TheBreakfastclub about her thoughts on Patreon. The basic point she made is that people are asking for money for free when they use Patreon ask to get paid for making videos. This is tantamount to e-begging in her view.

While she acknowledged the fact that she is a part of the YouTube partnership program, she sees that as fundamentally different. With ad revenue from partnership, she is taking part of the money that a corporation is making off her videos. On the other hand, in her view, asking for money directly from the viewers is like asking for money for something they would otherwise do for free.

In my view, this discussion goes to the heart of what it means to be a content creator of any sort in the current moment. A couple of facts; first, we are in a time in which virtually all media is available (legally or otherwise) for free. Second, there is unprecedented market saturation for content. All sorts of content is available and competing for attention at any given moment. Third, a flood of amateur content is what makes up a substantial proportion of this market saturation.

From this saturated media environment, in which an entire generation has been raised not knowing what it is like to have to pay for their media, a sense of entitlement has developed. It would be one thing if this attitude was contained to content created by corporate entities with deep pockets, but it spills over to independent content creators as well. Awhile back, I made a video talking about a novel I am working on. Someone suggested I make my book available for free. Now, I am not foolish enough to believe that if people want to get it for free that I could stop them from doing so. To an extent, the very fact that people would read it at all would be a great thing for an obscure first time novelist. On the other hand, I would challenge that person to write their own novel, and once they are 30,000 words into it, ask themselves if they still want to give it away for free. It’s possible they might, but at a minimum, they would have experienced the effort required and realized that it is work. Never confuse the fact that something can be taken for free with it requiring no effort to make.

I do not expect to become rich off of writing a novel, and part of the reason I write is for the joys and challenges of it, as well as to express my thoughts and ideas. Nonetheless, writing to me represents more than a hobby I do casually. It is in no small part my aspiration to succeed as a writer that constitutes a significant portion of my motivation. I want to write well, and someday I would like to be successful enough to write for a living. Simply put, if I had all of my time and energy free to focus on writing, not only would the quality and quantity of my work improve, but I would be doing something with my life I find fulfilling. Do not delude yourself with the myth of the starving artist. Just about anyone serious and passionate about their art wishes they could do it for a living. Not everyone has what it takes to make it happen, but I have yet to meet anyone that would rather be working a menial job to pay the bills than working on their art. Selling my work, rather than giving it way is all a part of the process of taking what I do seriously and aiming for success. The attitude of entitlement sabotages artists at all levels, and in all fields of art, not just the major media conglomerates.

Returning specifically to the issue of YouTube and Patreon, I certainly see the different between making a vlog and writing a novel. I have firsthand experience at both. I would be lying if I said that I have never given any thought to using Patreon. My reasons for not having done so thus far are manifold: the stigma against it; my own doubts about doing it similar to ThePeach’s; the usual lack of production quality of my videos; and so on. But there are times when it seems like a sensible idea.

Most of my videos involve me speaking extemporaneously, having put in no prior effort other than kicking the ideas around in my head for a while. Such efforts hardly seem to be worthy of anyone’s cash. On the other hand, my FeministFrequency series would be a perfect example of a time when I put in so much effort that I am almost embarrassed to admit it, because it makes the fact that I did it for free seem absurd. I wrote 20,000 words worth of script, watched hours worth of video, spent many more hours editing video, gathered and created images, recorded reading the scripts, did video inserts, created the graphics, and the music and a host of other things. At minimum wage, the effort would have totaled hundreds of dollars easily. The one part that stands out most to me was a ten second joke about “Rage Against Capitalism”. I recorded the voiceover, made the graphics, dug out my guitar petal to do the wah-wah sound from Bulls on Parade, edited the audio and put it all together. By the time I had finished, I realized that an hour had past. If everything I did required and hour of work per ten seconds of result, I wouldn’t ask for money, I would demand it. I have gotten paid real money for music videos that required less work than that series of videos. Video production is a profession. The odd thing about YouTube is that the videos that took countless hours to create and ones that took barely any effort at all occupy the same site.

A great many people criticized FeministFrequency for asking for $6,000 to make her Tropes Vs Women in Video Games series. There were countless cries of “I make my videos for free, so why can’t you!”. This shows the disconnect people have over how difficult and time consuming researching and making a video of good production quality can be. People’s time and effort are taken for granted and expected for free because of a massive sense of entitlement people have about media nowadays. Were this attitude to prevail in all cases, little of quality would ever get produced. Passion is inconsistent and can only take people so far.

TheAngryVideoGameNerd has a video about the process of making one of his videos. It is a great example of how time consuming and involved video production can be. I am not sure how long it takes DarkMatter2525 to make his videos, but I know enough about animation to know that even with all the advantages of animation software, it is still a time consuming process. And yet it all seems so effortless to the viewer. It all seems like magic till you have done it yourself.  Production quality is a factor in considering asking the audience for money. Everyone can do it for free, but not everyone’s efforts are equally worthy of reward.

I am a Youtube partner, and I will say that amount I get from ad revenue isn’t even enough to support my coffee habit. A reason I have flirted with the idea of joining Patreon is that vloggers are being fooled into believing that what we do has no real value. Even if I got as little as $10 a video, I would have a lot more incentive to make them more consistently. And on the whole, it takes around an hour to shoot, edit, render and upload even a simple video, to say nothing of my occasional efforts of greater ambition and effort. So $10 would be slightly above minimum wage for doing an hours work. Ad revenue can be extremely hit or miss (mostly miss) but there is a more important point to be made. When I first became a Partner, I had a certain amount reservation about of making money off ad revenue. I have since come to understand that, Partner or not, it is the users and the content creators that make the wheel turn. My only problem with it now is that not all content creators are cut in on the deal. It is the content the users create that makes social media companies worth anything. The content draws the viewers, which bring in the advertising revenue. This is as true for YouTube as it is for Facebook and Instigram.

Social media works on the same model as television, but with a twist. In the TV model, networks would create or license products to be broadcast in the hopes of drawing large numbers of viewers. Those viewers would in turn be leveraged to get advertisers to pay large sums of money for that audience’s attention. The internet and TiVo have of course dealt a serious blow to this model. By contrast, social media is basically an empty shell and a means of distribution. They provide server space for people’s videos, photos or what have you and an interface to facilitate the exchange of that information. It is easy to feel in awe of a site like YouTube and the incredible technical achievement it represents. And it is understandable to feel a certain sense of gratitude for allowing you to distribute content for free. I first discovered the site 8 years ago when I had some Lego videos I wanted to be able to show friends and family. My story is a fairly typical one in that regard, and at the time, free video hosting was a rare thing. At first, it felt like I owed them something, even if it was only a sense of gratitude. But I have had 8 years to watch the site evolve and come to understand how social media works.

Unlike television, social media is not investing money to create content (with rare exceptions). While they do pay for the technical infrastructure that makes it all possible, that is not what draws in the users. People do not log on to Facebook to marvel at a system that can manage millions of pictures being uploaded every minute. They come to Facebook to see the photos and status updates of their friends and family, and other material being aggregated from elsewhere on the web. Without content creators, no one would bother coming to social media sites, and thus they would be worthless. There would be no attention to sell to the advertisers. (Side note: unlike television, social media also sells information it collects about you, not unlike a for profit spy network)

The simple fact is that making a video for YouTube is creating a product for a business making a profit off it. This brings us to another key difference between TV and social media. TV aims for a large audience. Shows that fail to draw a large audience are canceled. An individual show represents an investment meant to fill a limited timeslot in a linear medium. If it fails to perform, it must be cut. The internet does not suffer from the same technological limitations as TV. Thus, the audience can be much more dispersed. By television standards, almost every YouTube channel would be canceled. Even the most popular vloggers are only pulling basic cable numbers. For YouTube, it is the aggregate of traffic that matters. To quote their own statistics page “According to Nielsen, YouTube reaches more US adults ages 18-34 than any cable network”

The problem for most content creators is that their individual contribution is worth very little in the scheme of things. This is why the vast majority do not qualify for the Partnership program. There is a certain threshold of views that must be achieved before their content is considered worthy. Some people put in little effort into making their videos and have little interest in creating a large audience. But for mid-level vloggers, the sort I see most frequently resorting to Patreon, they are in a different situation. They have established a foothold audience, but are not very far up the mountain. When you reach that point (as I can personally attest) being on YouTube becomes about more than just making videos. It becomes about self-branding and managing a social media presence. You have to engage the audience, manage several social media platforms, read comments, respond to emails, worry about things like graphics and video thumbnails, and numerous other tasks and chores. The effort required begins to rise substantially. For mid-level vlogger’s their audience is not large enough see a reasonable return on investment by way of ad revenue alone. It is not surprising then that so many of them are turning to Patreon.

Now that we have established that it does require effort and that it is essentially creating product, it starts to seem more like HBO that e-begging. In fact, you have to start to wonder about the psychology of someone that is only performing half measures. I often include myself in that camp. I have reached the point where I am getting over the fact that my success on YouTube seemed almost accidental and trying to figure out where to take it from here. On the way up, a few surprise hit videos, promotion by TheAmazingAtheist, some networking and sheer persistence helped this articulate and opinionated person reach a substantial audience. I have had an interest in film making and other media production since before YouTube existed, and so I own equipment and have a skill set that has proven to be beneficial to my YouTube career without it having been the goal. For a while I stumbled through with the idea that I was just doing it for fun. That was most likely the luxury of being in college. Struggling as I am for purchase in the bleak economic landscape on the path to some sort of career, I view YouTube through a different lens now. It wasn’t all an accident, and I would be a fool not to take it more seriously and view it as a step on the path towards something bigger: a place to prove my talents.

That is not to say that I expect to become the next big YouTube star. ThePeach also recently did a video called “10 Ways To Be Successful At YouTube”. It is a sarcastic take on what actually succeeds on YouTube. I am not really cut out for that sort of thing. My talents lay elsewhere, but unless you already have connections, you need to be noticed to get anywhere. YouTube can be a good proving ground. While it may be social media that is profiting from the free labor of countless users, traditional media is more than happy to look at sites like YouTube as a talent pool. For an aspiring artist of any sort, it is also vital to have an audience of people interested in what they do and what they have to say.

I disclose all of this as an example that even if people aren’t asking for money on Patreon or pandering to a large audience for ad revenue (or both) then they likely have some other motivation for their efforts. Constantly making videos of any quality and maintaining a social media presence can become an exhausting job. I have seen vastly more vloggers quit then I have seen continue. The people that are making it big on the site are in all likelihood working it like a full time job while making it seem effortless. More than a few mid-level people are also working hard without as much reward. People with no real agenda don’t bother. They are the sort to turn on their substandard web cam and record themselves rambling for a few minutes and call it a day. People want some sort of payoff for their effort. It could be money, it could be a path to something better, and it could be pure ego gratification. This is not only true of YouTube, but of life in general. Most people take the path of least resistance unless they think their efforts will pay off somehow. What they are looking for depends on the person. VenomFangX is an example of a person that seems to do it for his ego. He has always struck me as the sort of person that enjoys the attention, even if it is negative. His constantly smug expression and the fact that the only comments he allows are sycophantic praise would seem to validate this suspicion.

Patreon exists because it fills a need. It helps create a ‘middle class’ between the people that barely try and those that have become huge successes. It is a lifeline that gives some people the incentive to continue and compensation for their efforts. Let’s face it; most of what is on YouTube is shit. Viewers that appreciate the efforts of certain channels are happy to support what they like because it keeps everything from falling into the morass. What entitled people who think everyone should make content for free need to realize is that quality requires effort. If it is not properly supported, then the people making it will eventually ask themselves “why bother” and quit, or at least not try as hard. And importantly for discussing Patreon, not everything of quality will be responded to by the masses. I find it irresistible to make a comparison to PBS at this point. While they do get grants and donations from wealthy benefactors and non-profits, they are “viewer supported”. People give PBS their money because they believe in the content, even if it is not the sort of thing that would draw prime time numbers on network television.

It should also be pointed out that there is a sacrifice to mass success as well. If you think the answer is “get more viewers and make more ad revenue if you want money for making YouTube videos” then I advise you to study some successful YouTubers and take note. Most of them are people who have learned to polish the lowest common denominator, or pander to the audience. Without disparaging TheAmazingAtheist, I have watched his career on YouTube with interest, because he is the only person I have seen remotely like myself that has succeeded in gaining a large audience. He has over ten times more subscribers now than when I firsts started watching him. I tried to examine what factors differentiate his level of success from my own in a broader attempt to understand YouTube success. In some regards, we are alike. We are around the same age, have similar taste in entertainment, are both atheists and make YouTube videos. At certain times, I have felt that we generally share very similar views. It is true that he is tall, fat and apparently has a small penis, while I am average height, skinny and ignoring my calling as a porn star. But those are not the important differences that seem to make a difference in success.   

TAA is a performer at heart. He has said before that he studies the performances the stand-up comedians he admires and tries to learn from their performances. He is also filling a role. He gives voice to the loud, angry and opinionated person living inside many of us. He has made a confrontational style and speaking ‘unpopular’ and ‘edgy’ opinions his brand. The secret is that such opinions are not as unpopular as one might think, as his own popularity attests. I on the other hand am not a performer, beyond my talent for delivering extemporaneous monologs. Moreover, my personality is not suited to filling the sort of role that TAA does. It is hard to be nuanced and consider multiple sides of the equation and shout out a rant at the same time. Furthermore, the harder you try to court an audience, the more the audience becomes the tail that wags the dog.

One of the unspoken tricks of being popular on YouTube is to ambulance chase the viral attention surrounding the news story or topic of the moment. This places you constantly in reaction mode, pontificating about the latest hot button issue. In doing so, you abandon the initiative and become subject to the whims of the moment. This is why the news is generally so abysmal and utterly lacking in insight, instead returning again and again to default talking points. If a shooting happens, the media always circles back to gun control vs blaming some sort of scapegoat like video games. Nothing is learned, individually or collectively, because people simply argue their sides till the next issue comes along to argue about. Rarely do they look into the event further than their own assumptions. When a similar incident happens again, it is like the movie Groundhog’s Day. When Youtubers emulate this pattern, they fall into the same trap as the news.

Again, the secret to stating an unpopular opinion is those opinions are actually shared by a substantial audience. This is how Fox News can cater almost exclusively to one side of the political spectrum, while MSNBC and cater to the other. TAA is an avid fan of Marilyn Manson, as am I. To paraphrase Manson’s autobiography, he said in regards to Anton LeyVey that the philosophies we find most valid are the ones that tell us what we already believe. This is how the unpopular can be popular if not mainstream. But the other edge to this sword is that you have to keep the audience agreeing with what you say. This takes a combination of mirroring the audience’s beliefs, going with the crowd and drawing in impressionable fans.
I have seen the fickleness of the audience first hand. I have had people unsubscribe the moment I state any point of view they do not agree with. I also remember as a teenager seeing Marilyn Manson fans turn on him because he changed his look and sound on the album Mechanical Animals. Consistently challenging the audience’s beliefs is not a good path to success. But constantly pandering to them makes you tired and predicable and becomes a kind of prison. The audience’s expectations start dictating to you what you can and cannot be and think.

It takes someone skilled at pandering to sense the disposition of the audience and respond accordingly. Case in Point: Feminism. At the moment, an easy way to score points with an audience is to trash feminism. Feminist bashing also has the advantage of seeming rebellious. This is part of the reason so many popular YouTubers are taking out their sticks to whack feminism with. More people will cheer them on than abandon them, so that is the opinion they end up championing. The fact that they are resorting to Straw man tactics and ignoring the complexities of the issue is irrelevant. Give the people what they want! That is the basis of politics in a democracy. It is how someone like Mitt Romney can oppose the Affordable Care Act while running for president, because the majority of republican voters are against it, in spite of the fact that it is based on a law that he himself signed as a governor. It is why nearly every serious presidential candidate moves towards the center during their election campaign. Pandering causes people to trade their own opinions to echo popular sentiment. It is the intellectual lowest common denominator.

In the realm of YouTube, people who go chasing a mass audience also seem to embark down this path. Even if they started out with something to offer or than the typical vapid fluff, they end up becoming the intellectual equivalent. They stop having something unique and insightful to say and instead become more like barometers of a certain flavor of opinion. It becomes tiresome and uninteresting. It is like when a band tones down their sound and starts making more radio friendly music. They lose much of what make them interesting to begin with. To continue with the music analogy while returning to the subject of mid-level YouTubers, without support, the band you like might quit or start making radio friendly music to try and get greater success. The same goes for YouTubers.

While not everyone wants or needs money to keep them making YouTube videos, there isn’t much point in begrudging those that do. If viewer support keeps them from pandering to the masses, then all the better. It is up to the audience to decide what is worth their money. The current system of ad revenue is of substantial benefit to only a small few. Even most of those with access to it are getting little from it. It is up to us as content creators to recognize the fact that what we do has value, even if it can be accessed for free. It is making social media companies’ money. It requires our time and energy to make it. The audience hopefully values it more than the rest of the ocean of shit that is on YouTube. A bit of money would likely incentivize people to do a better job, and hopefully up their game. Entitled people want us to believe that we don’t deserve anything for what we do. Social media companies would rather we focus on the fact that they are letting us share our content for free rather than the fact that our content is integral to how they make their money. People that resent the talent and success of others will try to drag them down anyway they can. Not all of us are YouTube star material because we are not vapid enough, or will not pander hard enough. It is just not in keeping with our personalities. All of this is the foundation of believing that people are wrong for accepting money through Patreon, or having a donate on PayPal button or using KickStarter. They audience is smart enough to know if what they are choosing to pay for is worth it. If they aren’t, then there is the saying “a fool and his money are soon parted”. Even in cases of outright e-begging, “the fool and his money are soon parted”. I suspect that there aren’t many viewers that are going to give money to Youtubers that put little effort into their videos. Things will sort themselves out naturally.

The point of Patreon is that people know what they are paying for: videos. They are not being asked to give money towards someone buying a new camera so viewers can see the same old stuff “NOW IN AMAZING HD!” or fund their travel or fund projects that may or may not come to fruition, or any of the other frivolities e-begging is associated with.

In case you think this is all a big build up to me announcing that I am now on Patreon, the truth is that I am still on the fence. I am not sure if it is right for me personally, but I can understand why certain people would do it and why they might be justified.