Published 9 February 202310 February 2023 · Writing / Work Please like, follow and subscribe: the pathos of Patreon Scott Robinson My ultimate dream job is to trade labor for capital. (Darcie Wilder) It is an unavoidable question for most contemporary writers, artists or creators: should I start a Patreon? Should I set up a Substack? Should I have an account on KoFi, or a Medium page, a stylish website, a Kickstarter, or GoFundMe for my work? These platforms entice writers with the prospect of an income. They proffer a painless way to reach an audience, who can upgrade to patrons and start showing their appreciation for our work in monetary form. And it is an unavoidable feature of any Patreon-supported work, Substack newsletter or other subscriber platform that it should be in constant solicitation of patrons. Almost every podcast begins and ends with ‘check out our Patreon’, ‘sign up for bonus content.’ Every newsletter begins and ends with an exhortation to sign up as a paid subscriber. It is unavoidable not only because it is in the interest of the writer, artist or creator. It is unavoidable also because the platforms render it part of the infrastructure. Every Substack page contains a glowing white box just waiting for your email address. This becomes, unavoidably, part of the work being produced. What began as a way to fund work and bring existing ideas into fruition is funnelled by hungry platforms towards an engine of content production that demands we churn out words in structurally-required scripturience. None of this is to denigrate the work of writers, artists and creators supported by such platforms. My point is that we should try and understand the effect these platforms have on the work they claim to enable. The siren song of these patronage platforms solicits our content with an apparently endless appetite. We should ask why they are so eager to entice us. Patronage providers are businesses, driven by profit and using the playbook of platform capitalism. They sanctify their enclosure of the online commons with paltry payments and demand tithes for the privilege of reaching an audience. This affects the tone of our writing and work. Every post is haloed by the compulsory a plea for subscribers, patrons and followers. The rise of the patronage platform When platforms like Patreon emerged, it seemed like a new funding model and an exception from the constant siphoning of value by giant platforms. Along with Substack, Medium and many others, they purported to offer an alternative to the flattened hellscape of the attention economy, allowing creators to reach a specific audience who were enthusiastic enough to fund ongoing work. It is increasingly clear that they are another form of platform capitalism, tied to features of social media and cultural economy in which atomisation proliferates, profit is prioritised, and work subtly altered by the imperatives of a patronage model. Between its founding in 2013 and 2019, Patreon claimed it paid out $1 billion to around 125,000 creators, which by some reports has more than doubled to date. Meanwhile, it continues raising investment money, to a valuation of $4 billion in 2021. Medium, whose payment system works more like Spotify, is reported to be spending $130 million to attract writers. The newsletter it sends to writers reflects some of the imbalances characteristic of Spotify, with only 5.8% of writers earning over $100. Revealing, too, are the eligibility criteria for its Partner Program. This requires, echoing a public health promotion, that writers ‘Stay active.’ The medium, or in this case the platform, has a clear message: stay on, keep active and work hard to attract as many people as possible. Medium requires writers have at least 100 follows before they are eligible for payment, which aligns with the ready-made author phenomenon publishers have discovered in places like ‘BookTok’, where a million views will land you a book contract. The accrued enthusiasm of fans, Malin Hay suggests, does ‘such a good job of providing free marketing for publishers, there’s not much incentive to start paying them.’ As Sarah Brouillette observes, ‘firms are eager to work with writers who can shoulder the costs of at least some of their own marketing by arriving with a legion of fans in place.’ Or as one Substack put it: ‘Capitalism wants you to believe that you only count if you have a name.’ An implied contract Deciding whether to sign up feels like a choice between invisibility and what used to be called ‘selling out’. But, as Laura Snapes writes, ‘bellyaching about integrity is outdated when ethics don’t pay the rent.’ Short of waiting for a revolution, we are realistic about the need to earn an income. But the desire for a steady wage cannot necessarily erase the feeling that the work we put into acquiring one somehow seems to benefit the platform far more than it does the writer. Writers and artists seem to increasingly baulk at the ways in which whatever they do, the platforms always seem to win. Substack has spawned its own version of quit-lit, while formerly free (for readers, at least) platforms like WordPress have become acned with ads. Sam Kriss wrapped up his website after he discovered that WordPress has started adding reams of ads at the ends of my posts, spammy little links to articles titled You’ll Never Believe How Many Pencils This Brave Boy Ate In A Week on sites called BuzzBong and LimpFeed and Spind.ly and Cloom, and they were expecting me to pay money to get rid of them. Kriss’ sentiment is emblematic of a wider squeamishness about the contract involved in signing up for a patronage service, a subterranean contract that works beneath the legal, explicit one defining terms and conditions. Freja Berg notes that podcast creators were uneasy about ‘violating listeners’ trust’ by monetising their work, and perceived the ‘paid subscription model’ as better because it ‘does not intervene’ with the work. Although they may not have to host ‘native advertising’ or ‘sponsored content’, the framing is dramatically altered, as they become a ‘Patreon podcast’ or ‘Substack newsletter’, and necessarily contain host-read copy or a link asking us to sign up. The explicit contract between the creators and platforms is underwritten by the implied contract made with patrons—namely to keep producing work. Artists’ continuous production, in turn, leads the audience to the platform. Sometimes this implied contract is part of the attraction for writers, creating an external expectation, a demand for regular work we might otherwise put aside. The platforms thrive on the accessibility writers and artists provide to the audience, churning through their lives for monetizable content to upload. A co-founder of Substack, Hamish McKenzie, interviewed in the libertarian magazine Reason, tried to differentiate the platform from the ‘attention economy’ of social media by describing ‘subscriptions’ as trust relationships. They have to live up to the contracts they have with their readers. They have to respect and reward the attention and trust of their readers. Read awry, there is a threat in this contract: perform for attention, or go offline. Platform industries Brooke Erin Duffy, in (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media and Aspirational Work, punctures the myth of disruption propounded by business media and other academics like Stuart Cunningham and David Craig in their Social Media Entertainment who extoll ‘constant disruption’ as the ‘mother of invention.’ Duffy argues that the features of aspirational labour draw on the same market logics of audience building and ad-revenue generation that have long configured work in “traditional” media industries. And the social media version mirrors many of the social inequalities and hierarchies that mar traditional sites of cultural production. Despite the start-up culture’s image of decentralisation and supporting the ‘plight of the creative class’, subscriber platforms are tightly connected to monopolies and conglomerates like Alphabet (via YouTube) or Amazon (which owns Twitch). Monopolistic platforms like Amazon, which also owns Audible, exercise their power to squeeze creators and publishers into extortionate contracts that involve features like infinite returns for customers even after they have listened to a book, with the cost being passed onto the author. The model—effectively one of rental or subscription, rather than purchase—incentivises the platform to keep subscribers endlessly entertained and apparently satisfied. This encourages an economy of scale, pushing writers, through tiny royalties, to produce more and more work. The internet is a loop that connects the aspirations, desires and labour of its users to behemoth digestive tracts that process and monetise data, evaporating differences between the few stars who can make a living and the rest of us by presenting this divide as one that can be crossed by hard work and devotion to your audience. It offers an unmediated medium in which you can make or write whatever you want and find the audience who wants what you make. This apparent alignment between platform, creators and audience is obviously a myth. Yet its subtle allure is hard to shake, even for an intelligentsia awash with warnings about platform capitalism (Srnicek) or about surveillance (Zuboff). Monetise everything Jessa Crispin captures the post-critical gamble at play in our reasoning: we feel so exploited already that we may as well monetise everything. She writes: I have already optimized my home, my cat, my writing, my jokes and my pastimes for monetization and image maintenance on platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Patreon, and now I have a place where I can sell both my ass and my soul, completing the package. The transformation from person to brand is complete. Having discovered the way platforms ferociously monetise our data, we feel entitled to our own dividends from the time we spend on the internet. While many signed up for OnlyFans, especially with lost income during lockdowns for precarious workers, Patreon and Substack provide similar possibilities. Platforms embrace the personal brand mentality typical of neoliberal entrepreneurialism, presenting everything we do as an asset waiting to be capitalised. They obliterate the distinction between living and working, and so contribute to the obfuscation of ‘work’ as a site of continued domination. Like Crispin, we can see patronage platforms like Substack and Patreon as an OnlyFans for writers. They subject writers and creators to the same pressure to transform every aspect of ourselves into a business. Like OnlyFans, they sell the idea of direct access but thoroughly mediate everything that passes through: money, data, and the mechanisms of success or ‘algorithmic management.’ The point is less that patronage platforms are unique; the point is rather than they are far more like the purely profit-driven platforms than traditional publications, and that they are not the exception or cost-free protection for the writer and artist they claim to be. Patronage platforms intensify what Eva Bujalka calls ‘the relentless pressure to be more productive, to work “smarter”, and to ceaselessly optimise our free time, [which] has led to an epidemic of stress and burnout.’ Taylor Lorenz warns that Substack ‘encourages a similar mentality. Writers must write and publish regularly to maintain a paid subscriber base, and that work can be exhausting.’ Crispin captures the heightened wager in the shift from, say, social media to monetised platforms for patrons: Likes don’t mean anything anymore, you’ve got to see what people will pay for it. Think you’re pretty smart? Record your thoughts about every single movie you watch, every article you read, every headline in the news and see if people will pay to hear more. Those numerical figures that tally up your monthly income from subscribers, those are your new vital signs. It doesn’t matter how good your work is; what matters is that enough people will pay for it. But they also carefully cultivate their respectability. Despite Substack’s libertarian reputation of a ‘hands-off stance on content moderation,’ co-founder Hamish McKenzie also admits they have prudish ‘content guidelines that protect us and protect the platform’, claiming ‘that’s not the kind of ecosystem we’re trying to build.’ While you cannot use Substack for porn, you are invited to expose your most intimate thoughts, which will surely build trust with your patrons. Substack, like Twitter, maintains a pretence of wide intellectual freedom but also clutches a fig leaf of respectability to keep advertisers and investors happy. This is just one way in which platforms shape the work that is uploaded to them. Cultivating an audience That platforms transform the work produced on them is happily admitted by more sympathetic accounts such as Olga Goriunova’s Art Platforms and Cultural Production on the Internet. Goriunova writes that ‘An art platform is never simply a technocultural object … [Art works] are now irreversibly coproduced by the networked media technology.’ I have already suggested that the very exhortation to subscribe is a transformation in the work, but this is only the most literal. Writers, artists and creators must—at the behest of their patrons, audience (prospective patrons) and platform hosts—continuously evaluate the appeal of their work, at the risk of violating both implicit and explicit contracts. Shaan Sachdev, reflecting on the experience of performing online, writes, ‘I’m struck by the extent to which I’ve already internalised the collective eye.’ If Sachdev’s bodily performance is affected, so too the tone of writing for patrons. Its tenor is structurally plaintive. The most hectoring, moralising screed, like neo-reactionary troll Curtis Yarvin’s, begins and ends in a conciliative request for support. Although the self-selected audience might seem to liberate us to produce work that is mostly personally satisfying, we cannot help making adjustments. What is at stake is not just validation, but our income. The entrepreneurial self has internalised all the institutional apparatus that can help (though not always) deflect from a writer the demands of the market. A writer with a column in a newspaper or journal has a relationship to their audience mediated by the professional and ethical commitments and editorial policies of the publication. A writer with a Substack has a relationship to their audience mediated by a platform designed for nothing but profit. Publications are collective projects; patronage platforms are businesses that individualise their users. This makes patronage platforms qualitatively different. The gig is up Subscriber platforms are the latest forms of the gigification of creative work, turning the writer into their own marketing, editing and publishing business. Like self-publishing, as Sarah Brouillette documents, gigified economics expose workers more directly to the pressures of the market. There is no advance, no marketing budget except what you can front yourself. This is not an easy way to make money. Many more authors earn a pittance doing this work than make a liveable wage. This leaves writers and artists pleading, in constant refrain, to ‘please like, follow and subscribe’ to their patronage service of choice. Even established writers like Mary Gaitskill, enticed onto Substack by the offer of a paid residency, concludes her stint with the comment ‘it’s more demanding than it looks.’ What Richard Seymour calls the ‘social industry’ melds into what Theodor Adorno called the ‘culture industry’, fuelling the drive to ‘infuse [writing] with the imperatives of amusement and entertainment.’ It is a race to the lowest common advertisement-denominator; whatever lands most traffic to the page, whatever leads most eyeballs to the platform, whatever keeps us glued to the flickering screen. Cory Doctorow, for example, laments the way ad targeting transformed the democratisation of publishing on the internet into a constant ream of the most ad-conducive content possible. The online infrastructures supporting the proliferation of new and independent voices ‘shifted’ its priority, Doctorow argues ‘from the writing to the banner ads.’ Doctorow, and others such as Catherynne Valente, have tracked the now-familiar trajectory of platforms. They begin offering a ‘good deal’ to users, then luring ‘business customers’ to monetise the platform before (or while) routing the surplus to itself. Doctorow calls it ‘enshittification’ and tracks its progress through Tiktok, and Amazon. Valente does the same with Prodigy, an early social media platform that after allowing networks to form, transformed itself into market so violently it directly asked users to ‘stop talking to each other and start buying things.’ Platform enclosure Platforms never forget their own revenue models, and patronage platforms have the odour of the process described by Valente and Doctorow. In one of his ongoing chronicles of internet cultures, Sad By Design, Geert Lovink describes how platforms develop ‘through an already existing critical mass of users and data’ and ‘harness informational differences’ to force people to interact through their own ‘meta-product’ which he calls an ‘architecture for capitalisation.’ Despite the naturalising metaphor of the platform, these businesses operate their infrastructure for their own benefit, and ‘control the user experience.’ Patronage platforms work hard to seem like an alternative to the starvation wage economy of the monopolistic platform economy. They claim to be a synthesis of the open possibilities of the early internet and the capability of snagging some income. They dangle the allure of an unmediated relationship to an adoring audience who line up patiently with money to fund our latest creations. But it appears that these platforms are another instance of the inevitable internet ouroboros eating the sources of its genuine value and leaving only the skeletal remains of a viable culture. Nevertheless, we persist. Writers and artists are a resilient bunch, motivated and measured by far more than monetary gain. But they must also find means of survival in the interstices of capitalism’s meagre offerings. Patronage platforms are its latest means. Their apparently low cost of entry might conceal effects we did not expect, hiding by their very offer of a space of artistic freedom their terms and conditions, extractive and monopolistic to their core. Please like, follow and subscribe. Image: Flickr Scott Robinson Scott Robinson is a writer, academic and unionist whose work has been published in Overland, Arena, Index Journal, Memo Review and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique. 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