Late last month, in the course of conversation, my colleague J.P. Grant asked me about the business model of any particular blog. Like, how do you curate content? (Or aggregate it, depending on who you ask.) How are writers paid? Are they always paid? How, please, does a website make money?
These are complicated questions. They’re also things I’ve thought about a lot over the years, and if everyone knew all the ways, we could quit our day jobs. Also, they’re things I tend to discuss only with my editor, because business practice is as much a moral debate as it is anything else.
Still, I launched a business seven years ago by hand (my friend is still running it). I know about secure servers; I know how to become an LLC. I’ve worked for a business that makes half its money shipping internationally. I know how to look genuine while selling people on a product I don’t actually like. I know a fair amount about intellectual property; I know how Nigerian scams work. I know how to sound sincere and be insincere. I know how to fill out a shipping form that nearly circumvents customs. I know a surprising lot about user retention, page clicks, traffic, advertising, what a daily scramble is like, and really evil things far, far too nefarious to describe (“the more you can blockquote, the better for SEO,” “forge an intimacy with your readers and they’ll never realize they’re reading a sponsored post”).
“No, these are good questions,” I told J.P., “because these are questions I ask [my editor].” I added that I’m “heavy duty when it comes to being a mercenary businessperson when it is theoretical.”
“Jenn Frank: Theoretically Running This Shit,” J.P. typed.
In the end, if we all did the things we knew how to do in the interest of “success”—whatever “success” is—we would be awful, manipulative people.
Besides, bad ethics really is bad business practice. Most people can guess when they’re being swindled and, if anybody were to ever uncover that a post were sponsored or a system were being gamed, the backlash would be terrible.
Meanwhile, “banner” advertising—a vestige of the print medium—simply doesn’t work, and running them makes your work seem less credible anyway. So even speaking theoretically, my real recommendation is always complete transparency.
I told J.P. a secret, then, about Infinite Lives: it’s already paid for. For the next several years, I can leave it here, only updating it as I like—it’s already paid for.
So if I have any debt, it’s a social one. It’s part of an understood contract.
When I realized Infinite Lives was paid for, I stripped the ads, I explained. Then I asked J.P. if he’d ever noticed the donation link. He hadn’t.
Have you? Because there’s a link here somewhere. But it isn’t panhandling, because I respect my readers—a great deal!—and readers don’t like being hit up for spare change.
“In the interest of transparency,” I concluded to J.P., “you have to stop thinking of a website as a magazine or a newspaper. No paid posts, no ads.”
“So is it doubly weird,” J.P. asked me, “when, say, Penny Arcade does the whole ‘pay us to remove ads’ thing? Given that the ads probably aren’t huge moneymakers anyway?”
“I’ve thought a lot about that!” I replied. “This might be an unpopular stance, but I don’t have a problem with it. They are changing the product: a Penny Arcade without ads is a new Penny Arcade.” What I mean here is, according to Kickstarter’s strict rules, one can make the case that Penny Arcade is on the right side of the law.
“Penny Arcade has also proven that readers and players can be unbelievably charitable people,” I continued. ”’Take my money!’ We pay with our wallets. I mean—we VOTE with our—gah!”
I think if you are going to discuss the ethics of monetization, in this era your conversation will always turn toward Kickstarter.
It’s been a really organic evolution, this road to Kickstarter, and not an evolution I think I like. Maybe I should stop thinking of Kickstarter as a bizarre mutation of Save the Children, except that it kinda is.
And because a goat is seldom a goat—sometimes a “goat” is money better spent on other things—we ended up with things like Kiva, all these charities that help jumpstart entrepreneurs with a loan, as opposed to a donation. And here we are now: instead of feeding the poor, we’re funding entire businesses.
I didn’t say all that to J.P.; rather, I said something more like “it’s kind of a jump from Heifer International.”
I went on to say that it ought to be a good model, and it is except, at its potential worst, Kickstarter has become a way of taking pre-orders, of measuring popular opinion.
“And [in the case of games], circumventing a stagnant publisher model,” J.P. added.
“Yes, that’s true,” I said.
But maybe the moral question of Kickstarter—which really is what we were weighing here, even though we’d never outright agreed on those particular terms—was the “expectation of a reward,” J.P. suggested.
I pointed out that a lot of pledge drives do the same thing, except they are very careful to never use the word “reward.” Instead they tell you that, for a donation of a certain size, you’ll receive a ‘gift,’ “as opposed to ‘I am buying an extremely expensive coffee mug,’” I typed.
For J.P., the ethical question was more a matter of, and these are his words, “a limited pool out there among individuals, and this is yet another source that is competing with charity for private dollars, but in a way that blurs the line between donation and investment.”
“As such,” I agreed, ”[my editor] was very surprised when I went off about Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter. About how there ought to be a cap, no one needs all that money, even I need money, how can this many starving people invest in an unannounced game. And then I went on and on about feeding the poor.” Of course I am not really annoyed with Tim Schafer; rather, I’m peeved that more people aren’t upset about starving.
“Well, this is the thing, right,” J.P. replied. “We live in a society, and particularly in gaming culture, where there is this fetishization of owning stuff.
“But more than that, there is this fetishization of private enterprise and a disdain for public interest projects.”
J.P. tied this, then, to politics especially, and only now that I’m reviewing what he wrote, I’m seeing that I could have gone off in another direction.
“Right, so the consumerism thing,” I typed instead. “Oh, boy, was I put off when I had to log into Kickstarter to shut off any social networking stuff—a change that I only knew about thanks to the unsolicited emails about who was now my friend on Kickstarter.
“First of all, I do not care to broadcast the projects I have participated in funding. People can read that in one of two ways. ‘That’s all?’ OR ‘I thought you were unbelievably poor; what are you doing funding all these things?’ You can see what types of things I assist and with what frequency or infrequency. You could, if you were a psycho, attempt to measure my philanthropy in every way.
“So I am agreeing with you, yes, with the idea of gamifying or trophyfying my philanthropy, where instead of being an action, it becomes yet another thing I have.
“Like a star in my crown: I have a car. I have a house. I have a Kickstarter profile. I have a WHAT WAIT WHAT.”
J.P. agreed. “Yes, philanthropy is not a thing you have.” There was a long pause. “Unless you’re a douche,” he concluded.
“Correct,” I typed. “And there’s a certain Joneses benefit dinner mentality there that is really tacky and skeevy.”
“That’s right, tacky,” I continued. “Which I’ve recently realized is a place on my morality spectrum. Some things aren’t morally wrong in a lawfulness sense; they’re just tacky.”
“Heh, I like that,” J.P. typed, but now there was no stopping me.
“Sorry, I’ve been obsessed with types and levels of ‘wrong’ lately, and a few weeks ago I realized that one spot is ‘tacky’.
“Do you know how, if you suffer social anxiety especially, you feel guilt even due to a social faux pas or gaffe? Soon after college I realized that my guilt-o-meter doesn’t understand the difference between types of wrong. Doing something ‘wrong’ socially is of course nothing like doing something ‘wrong’ morally. I’m also a terrible moral relativist, so—
“But a lot of us are taught right from wrong, but not types of right and wrong. So we have the same crippling guilt feeling from using the wrong fork as we might running over a dog. Or at least, I tend toward that, to review a gaffe long after it happened. Like mispronouncing paella in front of my boyfriend’s dad when I was 20.
“So I realized that ‘tackiness’ is a pit stop on this spectrum, and a lot of issues I have morally with Kickstarter aaaaaare… tackiness.”
“Q.E.D.,” J.P. typed.
“And this I said to [my editor],” I continued. “Penny Arcade thing: morally wrong? Nope. Tacky to someone? Maybe. But there is the argument that it isn’t against the rules.
“If the spectrum of wrongness goes God-wrong, law-wrong, socially wrong, tacky, this is pretty much the least offensive of the Wrongs.
“I guess the spectrum of wrong sort of hinges on how many people you can offend in what way. Clashing colors are tacky: aesthetically offensive, but hardly punishable. ...Sorry, again, very obsessed with this new idea.”
J.P.: “Are you? I couldn’t tell.”
“Well, on that,” J.P. typed, “I think one of the issues particularly in this space is that many people do not have perspective on where a given incident or thing falls on the spectrum. The reactions are out of proportion with the severity or intensity of the event.
“So you get BS outrages like the Mass Effect 3 ending conflated with actual outrages, like Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian.”
“Right, exactly!” I said. “That’s exactly why I’ve been harping on the spectrum of wrong with myself: so I don’t have guilt or a sense of outrage with myself disproportionate with little daily errors I commit. But yes, exactly. Not that I didn’t love the Mass Effect outrage, where suddenly every gamer was very invested in narratology, in plot! I thought that was hilarious.
“Although…! A lot of skirmishes in public places have to do, not with the offense itself, but with an ongoing argument about where the wrongness DOES fall on a moral spectrum.
“Certainly some gamers feel there is a lack of proportion with the way other gamers respond to certain images or trailers in games. The onus is on other gamers, then, to prove the wherefores of the degree of offense,” I mused, “which is difficult to do, at least in that case.
“So the argument is not only over whether something is right or wrong, but also what type of wrong, to what degree of wrong, how damaging the wrong.”
“Well said,” J.P. said.
“Boy,” I said.
“Yeah,” J.P. said, “I’m reaaaaally glad I only do this shit as a hobby. Wow.”