Seeds grow in the underground

Five Buck Fatigue

2020-07-23

This is about a reaction I noticed with myself in response to membership programs, patreons and individual sponsorship as I've run into significantly more of these following Corona. The advertising-supported model has confirmed many of the concerns about its sustainability and creators are looking for more reliable options. I think this feeling I have might be something other people experience and something for creators to be prepared for.

Creating anything in a sustainable fashion is hard work. You are fighting uphill against a cultural expectation for things to be free on the web. Often a simple solution is a good solution. The simplest way is asking ones extremely enthusiastic fans to chip in, often with some incentive, such as bonus content. It is a solution with strongly aligned incentives, those who pay get more of the thing they like and they are already invested in sustaining the creation. The creator gets paid without needing to tailor their format or subject matter to the whims of sponsors or advertisers and can focus on making what the fans already want. Well-aligned incentives.

I think this model is great when it works, I think CGP Grey made his case very well. He generally makes tightly produced videos with long times between releases. YouTube advertising monetization is not optimized for his content though I'm sure it does pretty well. Beyond that the pandemic means companies cut down on advertising and this pushes more creators to try this model as rates go down and opportunities dwindle.

I've noticed something about my reaction to an increasing number of memberships. They frustrate me. Especially when they come in groups or too closely. This is a feeling, my robotic logic, I'm mostly human. I feel a bit of an "ugh" even before I consider whether the offer makes sense for me or not.

Part of it can be FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I absolutely dislike not having access to all of the content or behind-the-scenes for something I follow enthusiastically. Part of it can be the normal reaction to a kind of paywall. But generally the podcasts, newsletters and stuff that I follow aren't actually removing anything. They are just adding some premium stuff. I still feel that twitch, that small frustration.

So what do I think it is? A kind of fatigue, as the title indicates. I want to support, I want to engage. But I also want to be mindful in how I spend my money. And $5/month adds up pretty quickly. There is a lot of consideration in committing that recurring payment for .. indefinite duration. And I think I'm getting sick of deciding. I always feel an element of shame if I don't support a creator I like. I think a key term here is support. Positive thing right? You are supposed to support good things. So why aren't you being supportive? This is of course a bit irrational and you shouldn't feel bad. As often is the case with feelings, we don't get to decide them.

Let's call this the Five Dollar Fatigue, sounds catchy. If the trend continues I can be a thought-leader and I'm sure that's good for something. So yeah, the feeling of growing frustration connected to things you like or love continuously asking you for money.

I'm not sure how to lower the internal conflict when this kind of arrangement is brought up.

For me, personally. I think I might need to figure out what my actual budget is for supporting independent creators on a monthly basis. Then I don't have to re-evaluate it each time something I like wants my financial support.

For creators. I think most are thoughtful and graceful when they ask for the money and I think it would be worse if they were as heavy-handed as Wikipedia for example (lots of pressure and guilt in all communication, I've complained to them repeatedly). I think creators just need to be ready for the possibility that some fans will still react poorly, or more grudgingly accepting than enthusiastic not because of that particular arrangement but because of all the ones considered before it.

If you have thoughts on this piece of writing do let me know at lars@underjord.io or @lawik on Twitter. If you want more of my writing I have a non-tracking newsletter which usually comes with podcast recommendations and more in-depth thinking. Often about sustainability in software.