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.