By the way? The Soonr™ web services ending in 'r' stop dropping the 'e' before that r, the Bettr™.

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Flattr

The people who brought us Pirate Bay -- the very best in organized intellectual property theft -- have launched a new venture. And oddly enough, this one seems... legitimate, and potentially useful.

Well, that's not fair. Pirate Bay was useful. Man, was it useful. It's just, it was useful for stealing other people's shit. So, you know. Its usefulness was counterbalanced by its venality. But I digress.

Anyway, Flattr is a new and exciting way to show your appreciation to the creators and website types who you most like. Well, it will be, when it becomes available for you to try it. Or if you're on the beta list. Of course, until you're on the beta list, you can't either use Flattr to show your appreciation or set things up so Flattr users can show their appreciation to you, but again I digress. Let me start over in a new paragraph.

Flattr is a way to show your appreciation when you like something. You see, it lets you "flatter" the users. See? It's funny! But it also stands for 'Flat Rate,' which is the key to how it works. I know this because I watched a video explaining it. (If that link doesn't work for you -- Vimeo has trouble sometimes -- you can get it on Youtube as well.) This video compares it to birthday cake. So, I'm going to reiterate everything they said here, using their own metaphor, with my own bonus snark.

It's not my fault. It was a long day and I'm sober.

Each month, you "pay a small fee," which is to say you subscribe to Flattr. That gives you access to the magic, and gives you a base pool of cash -- in their metaphor, this fee makes up your birthday cake. Mmmmm... monthly subscription birthday cake.

Then, you go out into the wide world. But you don't bring your cake with you. You leave your cake back in the display case at Flattr headquarters. However, you are given a book of coupons, each representing that cake. Those coupons are infinite in number -- I told you it was magic -- so there's no reason not to hand them out to whoever you want to. You and your coupons go about your website business, going to webcomics, blogs, movie sites, porn sites -- you name it.

Now, let's say you visit a webcomic you like. We'll call it Anime Treacle. And you enjoy Anime Treacle greatly. And you notice that there's a Flattr logo sitting on their site with a number inside it. That is a magical box provided by the Flattr people to creators and website owners on the web. The box lets people slip coupons from their magical infinite coupon book into it, and it keeps track of how many it's gotten (that's the counter). If you like what you see on the website -- let's say Anime Treacle's delighted you with their happy romp through 2004 memes today -- you tear off a coupon and slip it into the box. And you skip along your merry way.

Now, at the end of each month, the Flattr Cake Van is loaded with all the birthday cakes that people bought with their subscription fees at the top of the month. And they drive out to all the creators who have one of the little boxes sitting on their website. They empty out the boxes, count up the coupons, figure out which ones go to what cakes, slice up the cakes -- dividing each cake into the same number of pieces as there are coupons given out against that cake -- and hand the resulting slices of cake to the creators in question.

Now, you have an infinite number of coupons, so you can divide your cake up just as much as you want. If you give out ten coupons -- I'm using their examples again -- then your cake is divided up into ten slices, and the ten sites you 'flattr' will each get one tenth of the cake. Not bad! If you give out just two coupons in a month, then your cake is cut in half and each of your favorites get half a freaking cake! That's awesome! And if you give out 100 coupons, your cake is divided into 100 razor thin slices of cake, each one nearly transparent, and your lucky recipients get... paper thin wafers of cake.

Remember, the cake is money. Your subscription fee, in other words, is divided up equally by the number of 'flattrs' you give out over the course of the month. If your subscription fee is a dollar (not counting whatever Flattr takes for themselves as part of the bargain, just to make things easy), and you give out one flattr in a month, that guy gets the whole dollar. Two flattrs means 50 cents each. Ten flattrs means each person gets a dime. One hundred flattrs means each person gets a penny.

The system works -- they say -- because of an old Swedish truism, which they tell us translates into "many small streams will form a large river." The tiny slivers of cake, when all mashed together into a single amalgam of cake, will add up into a decent slab of cake -- albeit one that's mushy and compressed because of all the different frostings mixing together. Really, it'll look more like candy lasagna. If someone makes something popular, there will be thousands of tiny bits of cake, and that person gets a windfall.

They're calling it "social micropayments," which has people mentioning Scott McCloud and Penny Arcade and old arguments long since passed by. I think this is unfortunate, because not only isn't this a micropayment system, it does the concept of micropayments a disservice.

You see, the core idea behind micropayments is you cut out all the middlemen. Instead of charging $3.95 for your comic book, you charge people a quarter because you don't have to pay a distributor, an editor, marketers et al. (This is an idealized example -- I know I'm oversimplifying.) People get the same content for a quarter that they once paid four bucks for, so they're getting a tremendous deal. At the same time, the creator's getting as much or more money per transaction, and because the transactions are so cheap, lots more people buy in and you get more money! Huzzah! Cake for everyone.

It was a really neat idea, and its only real failing was it didn't work. No true system emerged that would let people easily pay micropayments, and for the most part people weren't willing to pay micropayments in the first place. Even today, they enrage some people. Trust me. I play MMOs. If you have a microtransactions store that lets people, oh, unlock a Playable Klingon on the Federation Side, that infuriates some people, because they're already paying a subscription fee, damn it! If you want to charge for new things, make the game free to play! And then there are eighty forum posts arguing both sides of the issue and calling each other unoriginal names and finally someone locks the thread.

The key to the micropayment process is simple: the creator is setting a value for his content. The consumer then plunks their quarter down and gets the content. Values are clear and set.

Flattr doesn't do this. In fact, Flattr does the opposite. With Flattr, the creator has no say in what his content is worth -- and certainly can't lock it away unless someone clicks the Flattr button. An individual flattr is given when someone actively likes what they see.

This isn't a micropayment. This is busking, pure and simple. This is a street musician sitting out on a sidewalk playing his music for free, and people toss whatever change they feel like tossing into their instrument case.

But even that breaks down, because people aren't tossing in their spare change -- they're tossing in promissary notes for indeteriminate amounts. In fact, the people tossing flattrs into the instrument case don't even know how much they're giving. They have no idea how many of these they're going to give out before the month is up. They don't have to keep track. I'm sure they're not even encouraged to keep track. And whether they give 1 flattr out a month, or 100,000, the counters on the creator's website will go up the same amount.

To complicate things more, we don't know how much a subscription is right now. (The video says it will be "a small fee.") I rather suspect we will all be able to set our own rates -- we'll make as large or small a cake as we feel comfortable doing. Some people -- richer than I -- will stick a hundred bucks into Flattr each month. Others will put a buck or two in. I'm sure there will be more of the latter than the former.

So. Some people will be stingy with their flattrs, no matter how little or much they're paying in. They're going to wait for the truly exceptional things, and then give it out. That way, at the end of the month there will be more for the really good folks. Other people will give them out absolutely willy nilly. If they have a favorite webcomic, they'll give it a flattr every day without fail, even if it's kind of weak one day. It doesn't cost anything, and the ego boost of having that counter go up will be nice, right? Others will fall in-between.

And the creator will have no idea which is which. He'll know how many people in a month liked his website enough to click the button, but he won't know how much it's worth until the Cake Van drives by at the start of the next month. Will it buy them groceries? Maybe. Maybe not.

Flattr, in other words, will take the nasty business of thinking about how much you want to donate to a site you like, and just let you donate. It will give you that warm feeling of having contributed, but there won't be any accounting (even to yourself) of just what that donation is.

That's not a revolution. And it's not "micropayments done right." It's not micropayments at all. It's the equivalent of those little doodad presents you can 'buy' and 'give' on Facebook, without even the doodads. It is bulk good will.

Will I put a Flattr icon on the site? Probably. There's no good reason not to. Will that Flattr icon take in more money than Project Wonderful ads? Probably not. Will it bother me when it doesn't go up? Yes. Will it be meaningful when it does? Maybe, and maybe not.

I suspect this will be a fad for a little while, and then it will all but die out except for hardcore users. In the end, Flattry will get creators exactly nowhere.

Okay, that pun was beneath me. Look, you try ending one of these things.

14 Comments

That's the second worst pun I've seen today.

Granted, I made the worst one.

You're right, it's not miropayments, its a way to make Crowd Funding easier (this has also been called "micropatronage," which I like). And if enough people got behind it, it would actually work fairly well, but I don't think "Brought To You By The Folks From Pirate Bay" is a good sell for a lot of people.

Still -- neat idea!

If I could leave you a slice of Flattr birthday cake right now, I would, for that pun alone!!

Pre-emptive cake=lie: now made.

It is a neat idea. I should mention this to Jeff Duntemann, who's been a champion of micropayments (if only someone would invent a version that didn't suck) for many years.

I think your busker idea is better though. Imagine a similar system, say, tossr.com (link made up for purpose of example; I have no idea what's on the other side of that URL, so click at your own risk). You sign up, deposit money in your Tossr account, and then go looking for sites with the Tossr "hat" icon. So far no different, right? Except when you click the icon, you can specify how many Virtual Coins™ you want to Toss™ into the hat. You've already specified the value of an individual coin, and the UI will tell you, when you click the icon, how many coins you have left and what the value is in the receiver's currency of choice. And after that... it's exactly the same. The owner of the "hat" gets told how much moolah is coming their way, but it all gets laid out clearly and plainly.

That would have the advantage of openness, in that when you deposit US$50 in your Tossr account, it would make it clear: that's 40 coins at $1 each, and $10 profit to the Tossr company. The markup is clear. And as more people used Tossr, the markup would decrease as they got more value from interest - so you're encouraged to get your friends involved! If you found you were always tossing out 5 and 10 coins at a time, you could change the value of your personal coins, but it wouldn't be retroactive. The coins, in other words, are just a shorthand metaphor to help you keep the concept simple.

I wonder how you'd go about implementing such a plan. Interesting...

So for the creator it is a black box tip jar that you can kind of jingle a bit to estimate what might come of it. But, if it doesn't cost them anything, there is no real reason for them not to put it up.

For the consumer, though, it is a pretty good deal so long as sites that they like have the jars up. Because it is budgeted. They decide what their support budget is for the month and they will never go over budget and never go under budget. If they like Girl Genius 5 times as much as User Friendly, they can reflect it in the tickets they give out.

In previous years when I was actually had income, I used to take a certain amount of my Christmas money to give to webcomic creators. This was fine for the comics that I chose to support then, but there were hundreds of comics that I read, whose creators are also often in financial straits who didn't get my support. Giving me a chance to spread that money around more while not worrying about going over budget might be less good for those specific creators, but better for webcomics as a whole. And I'm still likely to buy the print editions of my favorite comics for the usual reasons.

Yeah, it will be a shame that the recipients can't really budget based on it, but I'm sure time will give a decent estimate, and if Flattr wanted to they could probably data mine how much a particular recipients tickets are usually worth and provide a rough estimate.

The big problem will be that when someone first gets an account they will go crazy with it, but later on they will forget to look for it until reminded. Maybe go through their bookmarks once a month to make sure it goes out.

Still, I think I'd get an account if 1) the processing fees aren't too high, and 2) if enough websites I'd like to support are setup to take the tickets. Still anything that might allow a website to convert more visitors into customers can't be considered a bad thing.

You know, without transparency in the amounts, I'm personally not inclined to join in as a "flatterer". As noted, there's no real harm in someone putting up a Flattr tip jar on their website; after all, even getting a few cents is more than zero. But for the person handing out the coupons, the lack of transparency raises some questions.

If I put $50 into my Flattr account, just how big is my cake going to be? Since Flattr is a business, it's certainly not a $50 cake. Probably not a $45 cake either. A $40 cake is conceivable, but truthfully, with most companies I wouldn't expect anything larger than a $30 cake, and a $25 cake wouldn't surprise me at all.

But I can't even be sure of that if there's no accounting to me. It might be a $5 cake for all I know. I'll never know if my favorite sites aren't getting much cake. And they'll never know that their small cake isn't because all their users are cheap and/or spreading the cake thin. It's easy for the middle-man to take advantage of the situation. And here we come back to the matter of who's behind it; the guys behind Pirate Bay, a service dedicated to stealing others' intellectual property. A group who named themselves after a historical career with a reputation for raping and pillaging. Trust is an issue, and the only way for them to really gain trust is transparency.

I'm surprised at how much "The people responsible for stealing copyrighted stuff! Surely we can't trust them in the world of business!" there is. It's not like they ever screwed over their users, nor did anything unethical by their own (rather at odds with most people's) standards.

Sorry to be posting an off-topic comment... but how do you navigate the new layout? I can't find any links to "older entries" or a post index or anything of the sort other than a "recent Posts" sidebar that lets me see three or four older posts.

I'm sure I am just not looking in the right places.

Okay. Let's try this again... Oh. It was a JavaScript issue? I guess that explains it. I hardly have time to script my own code for OpenID just now, so piggybacking it is.

Anyhow, I'm not sure I entirely like the idea of the service. It seems like a huge jump for them to go from their original model to one that involves separating donors from the thing they're donating to. Why make donations more impersonal? What's the purpose behind it?

I guess it's more original than changing to a more legal version of what they were doing before, I'll give them that.

Well, of course they didn't screw over their users. Their users had nothing to be screwed over on. And they didn't do anything unethical by "their own standards", sure... but they did do things that were unethical by other peoples' standards, which is how most untrustworthy people are. Similarly, Bernie Madoff didn't do anything unethical by his standards; he had no objections at all to running a Ponzi scheme. Trusting someone because they haven't done anything they themselves object to is setting the bar rather low. The question for each of us is whether their standards and their actions involve things we would object to. As the Pirate Bay's actions in the past involve theft, I feel their past actions are quite relevant when it comes to the issue of money changing hands. Put simply, they are asking us to trust a thief not to thieve. I see no reason to grant that trust.

Estokien wrote: If they like Girl Genius 5 times as much as User Friendly, they can reflect it in the tickets they give out.

That’s not how Flattr works today. You can only give one “ticket” per thing.

Really? I think Madoff probably did do something unethical by his standards, otherwise he would have described his Ponzi scheme as what it was, rather than as a completely legal investment scheme.

I don't want to get into the ethics of the Pirate Bay, because I'm not myself entirely sure what I think. But I think it's safe to say that they were transparent in their dealings. Even phrasing it in the worst possible way, you can say that they said they were going to make it possible for people to steal things and then they did. They're like Raffles the Gentleman Thief - if you get a calling card saying your diamond will be stolen at noon and by lunchtime you're missing a diamond you know that at least you're dealing with someone dependable, even if you subsequently decline to invite him to view your precious sapphire collection.

That said, I do agree with you about about account transparency - but I would support that in all companies. The Pirate Bay folks don't really present a special case here.

kludge said it better than I did.

(And of course there's the whole issue of whether or not illegal downloads are stealing in a meaningful way, but if we get into that we'll be here all day.)

The point is, he said it better and made an excellent Victorian reference while doing so.

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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