Sun Oct 22nd, 2006 at 05:54:25 PM EST
...Just some random thoughts about revenue sharing in a Scoop-like setting. These are more about the alleged ThatBritBlog project, which is still happening (or at least being thought about) quietly in the background, than anything that's happening here and now. But it's an interesting subject so some debate could be appropriate.
Print media are in trouble, but to some extent haven't realised it yet. I'm not sure print is dead yet, but all it's going to take is better open-access broadband and lighter laptops, and we're going to see more and more people reading magazines and papers online, and fewer and fewer buying printed copies. This is already happening, and the trend is obvious.
Some examples from life:
ArtReview announced last week that it's going digital, and in future will be available as an emailed PDF as well as a print edition.
One of the pro-audio magazines I write for occasionally has moved to a similar online distribution model, because as far as advertisers are concerned it reaches something like four times as many people as the print edition does. And production overheads are much lower.
At the same time as a move away from paper, the old impermeable membrane being official, edited and carefully controlled content and user-contributed content is blurring. Scoop sites are the most extreme examples of this. Single person blogs are another example, but to me they look more like a stage along the way to collaboration than something that's going to survive on its own without that collaborative angle.
Also at the same time, print is increasingly becoming integrated with video. Podcasts seem to be off in a world of their own somewhere, and there's a gap between audio content and text+youtube that seems to be there mostly for political and practical reasons. Whatever the explanation, there's still a move away from 'dead' print on paper, to interactive text+media content. Some of this is silly, some of it is excellent, and a lot of it is a lot more compelling than you'll find being produced by official content providers.
So - potentially, sites like ET and TBB have a very interesting future, because we're currently ahead of a wave that's likely to start breaking over the next few years as there's a generational shift away from broadcast (in the widest sense) media to collaborative media.
What does this mean for content production? The traditional model is based on revenue from advertising and subscriptions. If you look at Kos, even though the Kontent is collaborative, it's still the same model. Kos gets all of the money, pays some of it to hosting companies (printers) and possibly some to front pagers (do they get anything at all?) but in purely financial terms it's a huge machine that leverages (how I hate that word...) a community space and turns it into a cash cow.
Something about this seems less than entirely fair. While Kos does a good job given his stated aims, and no one is complaining about being suckered, it's still an operation that turns voluntary contributions into cash from subscriptions and ad revenue - and observant Kos followers will have noticed there's a lot more of the latter lately, including the famous Big Oil Chevron ad that pissed off so many people.
The real problem is - is it possible to build a collaborative model that not only relies on collaborative content but also includes some element of collaborative income distribution?
I've been thinking about how this might work for TBB, and it's really not a simple problem. The six options are:
- Run it along Kos lines, where the site owner keeps all of the money after expenses.
- Run it as a benevolent dictatorship, where the site owner keeps some of the money and distributes the rest to active contributors according to a subjective assessment of value and work done.
- Automate the distribution to make it based on rankings of some sort, or volume of contributions.
- Forget about any kind of income at all, and run it on a volunteer not for profit basis.
- Make contributions voluntary, and include some revenue directing options so that happy readers can direct cash, or perhaps just applause, to deserving contributors.
- Combine 3 and 5 so that there's a special 'That really was outstanding - please pay this person some of my montly subscription' rating option, and then tally up the results at the end of the month and split the spoils accordingly.
Looking at these in order:
- It's not fair to do this completely. I don't think it's unreasonable of a site owner to be paid some percentage of income by default if they've done most of the work to get it set up and are doing a lot of background work to keep things running. But keeping all of it seems excessive.
- This could work for a small site with not many contributors. But unless the site is being sponsored or supported by some very rich people, there won't be enough contributions to make a difference, so it's possibly academic in practice.
- This looks simple, but if the ratings are simple it's easy to game the system. And it's also potentially capable of distorting posts to make grandstanding more likely.
- Is the default situation. Now - I'll admit (as someone who writes for a living) that I have a real problem with the notion of a gift economy - at least once something passes a certain size and level of influence. dKos looks like a gift economy but really isn't. Mojo is all very well for everyone else, but it doesn't pay the bills. So I would like any site of a certain size to pay its way.
This is less of a problem at current ET level, because economically it's more or less a zero sum game. And in terms of content time spent contributing is well spent because of the synergetic uplift created by all of the other contributions. But this can only work on a small quasi-tribal scale, and anything bigger will start to sprawl and confuse the dynamics - both in terms of extra expense on the infrastructure side, and in terms of people wondering how the energy exchange is supposed to work.
5. This looks like the best all-round option to me. The Editor doesn't have to manage the process. But I'm still worried - would this be too easy to game? The last thing I'd want is to see contributors playing to the gallery for a cash reward. My feeling is it depends on the aims of the site. For some sites, if people want to grandstand, let them. For others, readers may be smart enough to spot it and ignore it. It's an interesting question.
One final point
Something about this process reminds me of larger business models. I'm interested in the idea that it could be possible to generalise content sharing and creation mechanisms towards a larger contributory company structure. Currently companies are very rigid and hierarchical, and even happy-clappy Californian institutions like Google still suffer from command-and-control thinking in the boardroom.
What if there was no boardroom, and decisions were discussed in public and made collectively? If it is possible to build a collaborative company, there's plenty of scope for extending the model in different directions that aren't limited to words, pictures and political thoughts.