Patreon is the canary in the coal mine

I just watched the second half of Dave Rubin’s interview with Jack Conte, the founder and CEO of Patreon. For a number of reasons, I think this interview and the events surrounding it were some of the most important in a huge battle going on right now. I’ll summarize the events as I understand them, and then explain why I think it matters in a larger context.

Patreon is a service that allows you to “subscribe” to someone, and every time they post an “update”, you give them money. The way this works varies, for some people it’s a monthly payment, for others its per “post”, and so on. It cracks one of the oldest traditional problems: how does an ordinary person support an artist they enjoy, so that artist can keep creating art?[1] This is fantastic, and a lot of people who I respect and learn from now make a living from the service, and in my opinion we’re better off for having it.

The trouble began a few days ago when a journalist named Lauren Southern had her Patreon deactivated, without notice, for violating their “content policy.” Due to the faceless, lackluster way her account was revoked, she made a video complaining that not only IHHO was the suspension based on false information, she was suddenly without any income and without any chance for appeal. This created a major public backlash against Patreon, which prompted Conte to make a video detailing the evidence that lead to her suspension. Southern posted a hilarious response video, and the surrounding drama lead to an expedited discussion that just took place. In my opinion, Comte seemed apologetic for the mistakes he acknowledged Patreon made, and sincere about reforming their procedures so this doesn’t happen again.

On face value, it seems like yet another story of drama created from a startup with more money/vision than experience. But I think it’s actually a very important episode in a very complex paradigm shift that seems to be happening right now. But before we can understand why Patreon is important, we need to understand what’s happening with Youtube right now.

For decades, the public narrative has been controlled by what we collectively call the Mainstream Media. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and so on. And for decades, everything they aired had to fall within a certain set of boundaries. New television shows have to be run through a process, and journalists had to fit a certain mold, which varied based on the outlet. Youtube changed this. With Youtube, anyone who wants to can upload videos, and provided they don’t fall into certain categories (copyright infringement, illegal activities, etc), it’s free and they can share it with anyone they want. Over the years some people have created brands and followings, and Youtube set up a system where they could play ads on videos, and those people who have millions of views can make money from it. The most notable example of this is PewDiePie, who I think makes several million dollars a year.

However, in order to put ads on videos, you must have advertisers willing to pay to put up the ads. And many companies have jumped at this exposure. But in the last few months, things have started getting strange. Many “Youtubers” have found that some of their videos get “demonetized”, and the reasoning why isn’t entirely clear. I’ve heard various anecdotes, from people such as boogie2988, who found that his “Francis” videos were getting demonetized, and from The LA Beast, a competitive eater, who found that videos with the word “vomit” in the title or description were demonetized regardless of the contents of the video. In a recent Rubin Report, Tim Pool discussed this issue at length. The lack of transparency from Youtube is scary, and it matches the pattern of other massive companies who seemingly can do whatever they want. In some ways this is the cost of treating a private corporation as a public space, but at the same time, if there’s universal expectation that a company behaves like a public space and the company does nothing to “correct” this, it makes you wonder what the word “public” even means anymore.

There are a number of theories floating around as to why the Youtube issue is happening. It’s clear that, especially after the 2016 election, there is a massive lost of trust in the existing media institutions, so maybe companies like CNN, who seem to be losing viewers, are seeing Youtube as a threat and pulling some strings behind the scenes to neutralize it. Large corporations in general tend to be allergic to anything which they think might cost them money, which includes videos of the wrong topics or which are embroiled in the wrong kinds of controversies. Or Maybe Youtube has long been trying to figure out a good way to handle these issues, and this latest iteration of probing hit a few land mines and freaked everyone out. It’s difficult to say.

The nice thing about Patreon is that it actually solves all of these problems. Most artists who use Patreon (that I’ve seen) have a bunch of subscribers who all pay a little bit, like $10 a month, and this can add up. Professor Jordan Peterson, who rose to the public eye after some controversy last September, is now supported by almost 5,000 individual patrons with over $50,000 a month, and he’s using that money to create some of the most profound lectures I’ve ever watched. Others like the scientist Sam Harris, and even the discussion point, the Rubin Report, are all at least partially funded by Patreon. There’s no large corporation that can find any of these channels “objectionable” and then revoke their advertising, because they are viewer supported. It’s basically the public television of the 21st century.

I think one of the biggest problems in the English speaking world right now is the lack of actual discussion. There are a multitude of opinion silos, some of them larger than others. Institutions like CNN and Fox News have their own narratives, supported by select facts to craft the appearance of relevant news stories while also pleasing their funding sources. Smaller silos, like various Facebook groups, are in many ways smaller versions of these institutions, adhering to a small-p-party line, and generally maintaining a rather fundamentalist intransigence. While people like Donald Trump are very largely to blame, they are far from the only culprit. The inability to see someone who holds a different opinion from yourself as human is the first step towards a nihilistic chaos that would only prove we learned nothing from the 20th century.

One of the reasons Patreon is so important is that it offers a lifeline to people who are trying to escape from the surreality and craft an existence which does not require a negotiation with Mephistopheles. Lauren Southern clearly has a conservative bent, and her work is controversial. If her fans, many of whom are also conservative, only hear about her account and other conservative Patreons also getting suspended, it’s easy to misconstrue this as Patreon taking a political side. On the other hand, if Patreon is overly transparent and puts out response videos to everyone the way they did for Lauren, it will put a massive strain on a startup that is surely having plenty of other issues to deal with. There are also questions about when a Patreon wants to have an appeal but wants it to be private, or how transparency deals with sensitive information, or deals with Patreons in countries with laws that conflict with their policies, and so on. And if we assume good faith on Youtube’s part and assume all their demonetizings were the result of algorithmic issues, should a company like Patreon even try to automate these problems, or are they forced to manually look at every complaint?

For now, I’m going to take Jack Comte at his word and hope that Patreon actively improves their processes. By doing this interview, they are already leaps and bounds ahead of Twitter and it’s “Trust and Safety Council”, a group whose claims of “trust” and “safety” would make Solzhenitsyn laugh. It seems like we might see a direct discussion between Southern and Comte, mediated by Rubin. I think that would be fantastic. If more companies in the US started following suit and actually addressing issues when they happened, I might start to have faith in American corporations again. Might.

[1] The more vernacular words for this are “content” and “content creator”, which I utterly despise because they suck all the meaning and spirit out of the essence of art.

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