The development of easy mass donation features on the internet might seem like a small thing, but it’s feeling more and more to me like it’s going to be incredibly important. ActBlue is the representative of this phenomena in the political arena. It allows anybody to make an account in seconds and instantly transfer money to the candidate of their choosing. In a very real way that’s what enabled Bernie Sanders’ presidential runs and the the whole rise of the modern radical left in America. It allowed political campaigns to be effectively funded by a mass support base of ordinary people rather than through traditional fundraising gatekeepers. It’s a development that is just getting started and clearly here to stay, and which promises to transform the political system even more than it already has.
So clearly that’s a big deal, but then these small donor bucks loom as a hugely transformative force in another arena – cultural production. What ActBlue is for politics Patreon is to culture. Any writer or artist or anybody producing any content that other people enjoy can set up a Patreon account and – if people do indeed enjoy what they’re creating – create a nice little income stream for themselves. I really recommend you go browse around and look at the incomes your favorite artists are making on there, it’s fascinating. But the upshot is that rather than competing for the favor of funding gatekeepers, individual scale cultural production can go directly to a mass audience and subsist economically while relying solely on the good will of its most devoted fans. Again, a trend that is just getting started and likely to be truly transformative.
Now there’s a third one, which you might say is implied by the cultural category but which I want to separate out: journalism, commentary, and everything else in the broad category of getting paid to talk about current events and what to do about them. Many people in that industry are already on Patreon, and now there is also a very interesting new development in the form of Substack.com. Substack is basically a platform for writers to set up a subscription based newsletter service. Like Patreon it allows creators to post both free to access content and content behind a paywall. This is an even more recent development than the political and cultural ones, but it looks like it will indeed be possible for an independent journalist or commentator to support themselves on the subscription revenue from a few thousand of their most devoted fans. Seems like a pretty big change from our current institutional model of journalism and commentary, where you only hear the voice of people hired by whoever is running media institutions.
What all of these have in common is an incredible democratization of the ability to support action that you want to be taken – whether that’s an political campaigning, journalism, or artistic creation. Since I’m someone who is into that sort of democratization I am pretty thrilled by this development. Certainly it already seems to be working in favor of the kind of outcomes I am looking for in the political system by improving the ability of the radical left to compete. The journalistic and cultural consequences are murkier, but based on that preference for democratization I’m optimistic.
There are also probably further areas where this mass crowdfunding model has or will be a huge deal. One that occurs to me is knowledge production – can internet mediated amateur science or other academic inquiry compete with the university version?