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?