Make us want to donate

Principal author:
John L. Clark


I think that information wants to be free, and I want to live in a society that has healthy mechanisms for supporting the free flow of this information and the creative people who author it. But when they ask me to donate to support their work, I always cringe. I don't think we should buy the information that they produce, but rather that donations should still be purchases … of recognition, access, and other interesting intangibles.

How can we get excited about donating money to support creators who specialize in information expression, such as authors, publishers, artists, musicians, bands, reporters, and newspapers? Glenn Greenwald is a writer who focuses on analyzing news and whose work I find pointedly insightful, stirringly important, and timely. He publishes his work gratis—that is, for no monetary cost—on the website Salon. Glenn recently published a request for donations to allow him to sustain his work. He is far from alone; while many creators of free content are exploring advertising as a source of revenue, others are trying to get by with donations. Anonymous donations, however, do not provide enough incentive for individuals to support creators in a sustainable way. To move to a sustainable system of donations, creators need to build a community out of those who would donate.

The continued availability of free content, bolstered significantly by the existence of the Internet, is extremely powerful and valuable. For example, when anyone can access the news, then more people can be better informed about current events, which directly improves the quality of their decision-making. I recently read a useful article titled Bringing the Heat in The New Republic, which considers the different approaches to clean energy legislation working their way through Congress. Shortly afterwards, I returned to it on their website to follow up on some of its points, and all but the first two paragraphs had been restricted to subscribers only. Actions like this make it much more difficult to have a public discussion about the restricted ideas, thus significantly reducing their value by increasing their cost.

In addition to the general benefits of having content available to everyone, supporting free content through individual donations has a separate set of benefits. Glenn highlighted some of the strengths of this model in the same article where he requested donations:

[T]his model of readership support for journalism and commentary is, in my view, very healthy. It permits one to remain accountable only to one's readers, which in turn means that no external agendas or interests can influence what is written, and the only real obligation is to maintain credibility with one's readership by offering honest, reliable, well-documented and completely independent analysis.

I have a great deal to say about the nature and importance of free content, but that will have to wait for a future essay. For now, let's consider the question of how we can keep this free content free.

I saw Glenn's request last week, and I cringed. I have seen (well, read about, mainly) other creators struggling to figure out how to survive in this new world of nearly free copies; I hesitate whenever they, too, end up requesting donations. I bitterly want to support Glenn and other content creators that I value, but I know that continued donations under this system will require continued reminders. There is nothing that draws me, or others, into a natural support pattern; sponsors know that donating is always a struggle, and they don't know if their donations are sufficient. One response to Charles Stross's essay Reminder: why there's no tipjar on this blog, by someone called Cat Dancer, is a true gem and has a whole array of insights. She says:

[T]he pure donation model ... hasn't made much money. Because people are still people, and they want to "get" something for their money. A donation is like a black hole, you throw money in and it disappears without anything coming back.

In short, anonymous donations, by themselves, are unsustainable. When we donate, we are operating outside of the traditional capitalist market, and so we need new cues.

Instead of just opening up to tips or donations, I suggest that content authors recognize their sponsors with some sort of token. In the essay Why do People Buy Virtual Goods?, the Wall Street Journal suggests that two of the three reasons why people buy things are to “build relationships” and “establish identity”. (Also, see the essay You buy virtual goods for some good additional commentary.) Donating to support these authors should in fact give us an opportunity to add to our identity as a supporter of their work or allow us to connect with others who also support that work (or both), essentially elevating anonymous donors into empowered patrons. A donation should be a tool of expression.

I would deeply enjoy receiving (for example) an NPR logo-emblazoned sticker for my laptop saying "I supported NPR in 2010", and for future donations there could be an option for small follow-up stickers, allowing me to proudly display my timeline of support. Cat Dancer thinks along the same lines:

So here we go: when I pay money, I get a badge that I can place on my web site / Facebook / MySpace page that says "I'm a patron of Charles Stross".

Which is literally true. Not a gimmick, not a marketing thing, but simply the truth.

Which feeds into my sense of identity. I'm not just a fan of Charles Stross, I'm a patron.

Which has a high profit margin for the publisher, because it costs nothing to deliver. (And again profit for the publisher is good because they can support more authors).

We already do a bunch of this already; branded merchandise is a way of supporting the brand financially while at the same time buying something ancillary that represents our support for the brand (and might provide some additional functionality, like a t-shirt). Many websites don't require you to pay to access their content, but instead provide advanced services to paying customers, such as disabling site advertisements or participating in special groups on the site. We are limited only by our creativity, really, in coming up with ways in which donators can become patrons when they buy into the brand of an individual or group whose work they treasure.

Identity and relationships do not just benefit the patron. Since the patron wants to support the particular author, she is likely to proudly show off her evidence of the support that she has given. When she places that sticker on her laptop, or pins the pin to her backpack, or posts the image to her website, then she is advertising for that author to others. In fact, by identifying with media icons, this is exactly what we want: to advertise for them in order to strengthen our own identities. Companies give away stickers and other swag gratis in order to get this advertisement; if people get something like a sticker for donating, the message they are sending by displaying it proudly is far stronger. Encouraging your patrons to identify with your work is really a symbiotic relationship.

Clearly, just from the title of Charles Stross's essay, we can see that he has rejected the idea of accepting tips. Cory Doctorow also rejects donations, even though he is a strong proponent of Free Culture and clearly understands the importance of allowing his readers to identify with his work:

His novels are published by Tor Books and HarperCollins UK and simultaneously released on the Internet under Creative Commons licenses that encourage their re-use and sharing, a move that increases his sales by enlisting his readers to help promote his work.

Both authors, as well as others, do not want to accept donations because they recognize the value that their publishers add to their work. Stross says that “[m]aking books is a team sport, not a solo activity.” Doctorow concurs:

Every time I put a book online for free, I get emails from readers who want to send me donations for the book. I appreciate their generous spirit, but I'm not interested in cash donations, because my publishers are really important to me. They contribute immeasurably to the book, improving it, introducing it to audience I could never reach, helping me do more with my work. I have no desire to cut them out of the loop.

To me, this just emphasizes that, with this new model, if we want donations to support the creators of quality content, we need to make sure that the donations support all of the creators of that content. For books, this must include the publishers. Even news commentary can and should grow; Glenn thanked a research assistant in a recent essay, and in the future he might benefit from additional collaborators, such as an editor. Donations need to go to the right place. Obviously, someone will need to manage these donations, and this might be a natural fit for publishers. There is clearly a need for continued experimentation, but if we want to support free content, we need to do more than just cajole individuals to donate anonymously.

So, Glenn, please send your donators stickers; or make a supporters list on your website; or give us special access to your attention; or do something else to make us feel special, to acknowledge that while your content is rightly available to everyone, we stand apart in helping support you in your work, and that fact contributes to our identity before the world. Of course, this applies to everyone else who wants to make their work freely available to anyone who can benefit from it. Now let me go over and make my own donation, because now I have been able to voice my opinion and carve out my identity as a supporter here, and his work is worth it.

This page was last modified on 2010-04-19 23:02:00-04:00.

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